Last week’s DHHS budget vote just the beginning for Legislature

Posted Feb. 27, 2012, at 6:32 p.m.
Kenneth Fredette
Kenneth Fredette

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers spent more than two contentious months wrangling over the details of a supplemental budget designed to address a massive shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Still, when that budget finally passed last week, it did not signal the end of the Legislature’s budget work this session.

Far from it.

The $150 million budget signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage last Thursday pays DHHS’ bills only through June 30. It also includes savings in other state departments identified last summer by a budget streamlining task force.

The governor’s initial DHHS budget proposal released in December addressed both the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years, but the Appropriations Committee opted to focus on 2012 first.

That means they will be back at work this week crafting a budget for 2013 that needs to close an estimated $85 million hole in DHHS — a process that promises to be no less challenging and every bit as partisan.

“We have a complex mix of moving parts,” said Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, a member of the Appropriations Committee. “We all understand that there’s difficult work ahead but I’m open-minded to think we can fashion something that works.”

House and Senate Democrats cast just enough votes to ensure passage of the 2012 DHHS supplemental budget, but they likely will be less eager to compromise now.

“There are so many leftover things that are nonstarters for our caucus, cuts that are so severe and so harmful to the vulnerable,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “Other cuts would shift costs to local communities, which will increase property taxes, and others would increase health insurance costs for private insurance providers.”

Gov. LePage proposed an initial supplemental budget that cut $220 million from DHHS for 2012-13. What was proposed by the governor caused heartburn for many lawmakers. When it became clear that there would not be agreement on a supplemental budget for two years, the Appropriations Committee broke it into two pieces.

Most of the controversial elements of the governor’s original proposal were stripped from the budget fix passed last week, but those pieces are now on the table.

A fundamental divide remains between Democrats and Republicans about the role of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Gov. LePage and many House and Senate Republicans have said the state’s publicly funded health care system is unsustainable and needs structural changes in order to survive. Many Democrats say structural change is code for kicking people off MaineCare and that’s not something they are comfortable with.

“We do see this as a removal of people from health care,” Rotundo said. “We feel there are ways you can reform MaineCare and reduce costs without taking services away. That’s what we’ve focused on and will continue to focus on.”

The 2012 budget that recently passed needed a two-thirds majority in the Legislation so that it could be enacted as emergency legislation and go into effect immediately.

The 2013 budget doesn’t need to go into effect until July 1, so likely does not need a two-thirds majority. With a simple majority, the budget would become law 90 days after the end of the legislative session, which is scheduled to run into April.

Rotundo said the leftover pieces of the DHHS supplemental budget include three elements totaling $37 million in savings that would require federal waivers. She said Maine has been told those waivers are unlikely, but LePage has pledged to fight for them anyway.

There is also likely to be another supplemental budget from the governor that addresses the remainder of state government outside DHHS. Rotundo said her preference would be to roll that into the 2013 DHHS budget, but LePage and legislative Republicans have been less receptive to that idea.

“I think it’s too early to tell whether we’ll do that, but we haven’t seen the overall supplemental yet,” Fredette said.

One thing is certain: There isn’t a lot of time to get this done. The end of the session is set for April 18.

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Politics