DAVID FARMER

Governor’s budget mismanagement will hurt poor and elderly

Posted Dec. 07, 2011, at 1:12 p.m.

In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” it took visits by four ghosts to change the heart of Scrooge.

If Maine can’t conjure its own versions of Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, thousands of our neighbors, our friends and members of our families will suffer needlessly at the hands of a dangerous budget plan proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Earlier this week, the governor released details of his plans to close a growing gap at the Department of Health and Human Services. He says his plan will cut state General Fund spending by more than $220 million dollars during the rest of this fiscal year and next.

DHHS is notoriously hard to understand, and because of the work the department does, its interaction with the federal government and strict — and confusing — rules, protocols and waivers, comprehending how decisions affect spending can be difficult.

Gov. LePage passed his first budget in the spring, and just barely six months in, the CEO who promised to bring business experience to the Blaine House is in trouble.

His budget projections are on life support. His top people don’t understand what’s happening with spending inside their own department, and it’s left them chasing an ever-growing financial storm.

A $70 million budget problem morphed, almost overnight, into a $120 million problem just for the current fiscal year, which is just six months old. Now the problem, according to the governor, requires more than $220 million worth of cuts, which target the state’s elderly, disabled, children and working poor.

Even Tuesday, while the governor and his staff were releasing details of their proposal, the numbers in question were still moving, unknown even to the people pretending to have answers.

The administration has mismanaged its budget and has fired or pushed out the nonpartisan experts within the DHHS who could have helped them to untangle the mess they’ve made.

Talk about chickens coming home to roost.

Now, with the clock ticking, the administration is proposing to fix its mistakes on the backs of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Every community in Maine would feel the effects of the governor’s proposal.

Regardless of what you are inclined to think about MaineCare, DHHS, government spending and the litany of LePage targets, the attack on public health and safety will roll over the state like a tsunami.

Thousands of struggling families will be cast aside.

Among the governor’s many proposals, he would deny health insurance to more than 60,000 Mainers who are currently covered. He would eliminate the Drugs for the Elderly program, which helps seniors afford medication. He would take homes away from thousands of adults in nonmedical private institutions. He would blow up the Fund for Healthy Maine, which is a national model for preventive health care.

His plans also include deep cuts to Head Start, supports to people struggling against mental retardation and disabilities, and to things like dental services and occupational and physical therapy for the poor.

While the governor’s rhetoric includes talk of protecting the safety net, if his plans were to be enacted, there would be very little left to protect.

The damage is so far-reaching, inevitably any listing will leave terrible cuts unmentioned.

And, almost to prove the point, the governor actually proposes making more cuts than are necessary so he can put $39.5 million in the state’s reserve account. He would hurt struggling families even more than he thinks is necessary.

His plans would have disastrous results.

And while empathy for the poor and near-poor might not register as high as it should for many Mainers, the impacts of the governor’s plan will go much further than the harm they will cause to working mothers, the elderly and the disabled.

Jobs — thousands of them — will be put in jeopardy.

Businesses will close.

Dollars will be pulled out of local economies.

The governor would like the Legislature to consider his plan quickly. He knows that the best way to pass these terrible ideas is to do it quickly and while attention is focused elsewhere.

Public hearings will start next week, with possible committee votes the week before Christmas.

Last year, the Legislature moderated many of the governor’s most extreme proposals. With the governor’s Scrooge impersonation ongoing, they will be the ones who are forced to face the Ghosts of Christmas as person after person comes before them to warn of things to come.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. His clients include Maine Equal Justice Partners and EngageMaine. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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