LePage accuses Senate Democrats of obstructing budget bill

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 1:59 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 17, 2012, at 4:03 p.m.

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Paul LePage
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage accused Senate Democrats Friday of resorting to obstructionism for blocking a bill to close a budget gap at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Twelve Senate Democrats opposed the budget bill Thursday night, calling it “fend for yourself economics” and criticizing its cuts to the state’s MaineCare program. Three Senate Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

In a Friday morning statement, the governor thanked Republicans for their leadership on the budget bill and credited Democrats in the House, who supported the measure, for their cooperation.

“While there has been some progress, there is still much work to do and Thursday evening’s actions by most Senate Democrats show their unwillingness to reach a solution,” LePage said. “Their strategy to solve this $221 million shortfall is still unclear after 74 days since I’ve presented this plan.”

LePage said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, who supported the bill, “has shown a willingness to work with the majority, unlike others in the caucus who resorted to obstruction.”

In a swift response, Assistant Democratic Leader Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland said LePage’s criticism wasn’t helpful.

“We believe solutions are attainable and we are here today working on trying to make this a better deal for the people of Maine,” he said in a statement. “We are obligated to take a balanced approach that will take care of the needs of Maine people — not a plan that is short-sighted with long-term consequences.”

After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, House members approved a supplemental budget late Thursday that addresses an immediate shortfall in DHHS.

The compromise budget bill, LD 1816, cuts approximately $120 million from the current fiscal year through a combination of changes to MaineCare eligibility and shifting funds from various accounts. It also includes an additional several million in savings across state government identified by a budget streamlining committee last fall.

Some Senate Democrats objected to a last-minute amendment passed in the House which preserved for Republicans a phase-out of fees that fund the state’s Dirigo Health program. In exchange, Democrats won a softening of planned cuts to hospital reimbursements.

Democrats in the Senate argued that the amendment was negotiated “behind closed doors.” They didn’t see the amendment until 4:30 p.m. Thursday, after LePage and tea party Republicans upped the political pressure to put an end to the Dirigo fees, Alfond said in an interview.

“We were supposed to go upstairs and vote an hour later on this budget that’s going to affect 32,000 Mainers,” he said.

Alfond said the choice to break with his minority leader was difficult, but he has felt all along that a more balanced approach was possible. Senate Democrats are discussing alternative budget packages with their Republican counterparts today and through the weekend, he said, declining to offer specifics.

The amendment received unanimous approval from members of both parties who serve on the Legislature’s budgetary committee, Senate President Kevin Raye, a Republican from Perry, said in a statement.

“It is disappointing that 12 Senate Democrats broke with Senate Republicans, House Democrats and House Republicans and that the prospect of the Department of Health and Human Services running out of money in April is now back on the table,” he said. “The irresponsible action of Senate Democrats in playing Russian Roulette with the DHHS budget puts at risk the well-being of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens and the health care providers who serve them,” he said.

The Senate is expected to revisit the budget bill next Tuesday. Once it passes, the budget goes to LePage, who then has 10 days to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

The measure stopped short of LePage’s plan, unveiled in December, to cut MaineCare coverage for 65,000 residents to save $220 million over the next two years. The Appropriations Committee rejected some of the governor’s initiatives, devising a plan to tackle this year’s $120 million gap.

An additional $80 million in proposed cuts to the DHHS budget for 2013 are expected to be debated in a separate bill later this month.

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