Maine legislators unlikely to finish budget cuts before end of January

Posted Jan. 26, 2012, at 6:31 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2012, at 8:03 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – The tempo of budget writing will speed up over the next 10 days as leaders of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee have scheduled a public hearing next Tuesday afternoon on the more than $25 million in budget cuts recommended by the budget streamlining task force.

Some of the cuts are needed to help with the Medicaid shortfall lawmakers are trying to close.

“There is $3.2 million in savings in that bill for this year and we have assumed that in the budget we are working on,” Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, co-chairman of the panel, said in an interview. “So, we need to get that bill taken care of.”

The leaders of the panel met to discuss the streamlining bill and progress on the Medicaid budget revisions. Most of the work on the $221 million Medicaid shortfall has been done in partisan caucuses with only a few votes taken on the scores of budget cutting proposals.

“Maybe we can get the streamlining bill done Tuesday night,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the other co-chairman of the panel. He served on the task force that held meetings and hearings through the summer and fall to find savings needed to balance the second year of the budget.

“Some of those proposals will yield savings towards the supplemental we are working on,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, a member of the task force and the Democratic senator on the committee. She said it is important for the panel to move on the task force bill as soon as possible and book those savings.

The Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force identified budget cuts across state government, some one-time and others that will result in ongoing savings.

“We are making progress as we go through all of these painful cuts,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the Democratic lead on the panel. “But this is tough going.”

Panel members continue to have questions about the details of many of the Medicaid proposals and call staff from the Department of Health and Human Services into both public sessions and into partisan caucuses to explain how proposals will work and what impact they will have on Mainers getting the services.

“There are also several specific DHHS items in the streamlining bill that are also in the supplemental [budget] and we have to make sure that we are not counting savings twice,” Flood said.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said her agency proposed several cuts to the task force that are in the supplemental budget bill.

“For example, the issue pertaining to the Suboxone two-year limit, that was focused on state fiscal year ’13, we are proposing to start in fiscal year ‘12,” she said. “That will get us some savings this year.”

Suboxone is a widely used medicine for opiate addicts and the proposed cut has been controversial. Several doctors have warned the limits could lead to drug addicts relapsing after the treatment is cut off.

Mayhew said she understands the pressure the committee is under because she feels it herself. She said if the budget is not done by Feb. 1, which it apparently will not be, it increases the size of the problem.

“We know that in order to advance these initiatives and to get them implemented and to get the other processes that need to take place, this budget has to be moved forward as quickly as possible,” she said, “It’s why we submitted it in early December, it’s why hearings were held in December.”

The committee plans to meet all of Friday and Saturday, both in caucuses and in public work sessions. Members do not plan to meet on Sunday, even though the committee is willing to meet.

“We are not meeting Sunday because we do not have a waiver to meet,” Flood told the panel.

During the committee leadership meeting, all lawmakers expressed frustration that new security screening procedures at the State House mean meeting publicly after hours and on weekends is expensive because of the additional security staff needed to screen members of the public entering the building.

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