Agreement on LePage’s supplemental budget still elusive

Posted April 01, 2012, at 2:59 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Appropriations Committee met Friday into the night and all day Saturday approving some spending items but still have several major budget issues to resolve in the governor’s supplemental budget, from eliminating income taxes on pensions to rewriting the general assistance laws to reduce costs.

“We have made a lot of progress in some areas but we still have a lot of issues on the table that have to be resolved and we are working on them,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the committee. He said although work has not been completed, there has been significant agreement on plans to eliminate the state planning office and parcel out its responsibilities to other agencies and create a new office of policy and management.

“I think we are very close to agreement on that area,” he said.

Rosen said many areas are still being negotiated including responding to a change in the way the federal government allows funding for psychiatric hospitals, General Assistance, Child Development Services, Indigent Legal Services and funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the panel, agreed the committee has been working hard on many of the issues but said some policy initiatives are taking a lot of time even though they do not have a lot of money attached.

“And my caucus has a lot of concerns about these big tax breaks that don’t take effect until a future biennium and are not paid for,” she said.

The panel did approve additional funding for the Department of Public Safety, including $1.3 million to pay for shortfalls in several accounts including the Criminal Justice Academy and gasoline prices that were higher than projected.

“We are scrambling to find the money to pay for gas right now,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Morris.

The committee also approved $362,000 for additional staff at the Computer Crime Lab. It will provide for a forensic examiner and two investigators but it will not be enough to eliminate the backlog of cases.

Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police told lawmakers the move will “chip away” at the backlog of cases, but with the exploding use of technology it will not eliminate the backlog.

“We could do a single case, such as a homicide and it could involve 25 computers and each one of those have to be analyzed,” he said. “A child abuse case could involve two different cellphones that have to be analyzed as well as the computer.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, sponsored separate legislation to add positions and urged the funding even though the backlog might increase even with the additional staff. He said the sexual exploitation of children makes it a higher priority.

“I think in this case, unlike some others, scratching the surface is a big deal,” he said.

Lawmakers said they have to fill the shortfall in general assistance that is estimated at $4 million for the current budget year that ends June 30.

Members of both parties have concerns with the governor’s proposals to rewrite the general assistance program limiting reimbursements to cities and towns to 50 percent of the costs of the program.

LePage also has proposed a time limit of 90 days that a recipient can receive assistance for housing and would also prohibit assistance to anyone who is receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

A majority of the Health and Human Services Committee recommended against both proposals, and members of the Appropriations Committee have spent hours discussing it in party caucuses.

One point of contention came out in a meeting of the chairs and leads of the panel, a proposal to create a work group to study general assistance in Maine and report recommendations later this year.

“We have problems with just having DHHS study this,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, the only democratic senator on the panel. “This is a joint program of the municipalities and the state and we should have them all at the table.”

Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, is the House co-chairman of the panel and said he would take that concern back to the GOP caucus but made no commitments in that open meeting.

“I can only promise to take it to the caucus,” he said.

With legislative sessions scheduled every day this week, the committee plans to meet when there is time between sessions as well as evenings.

They also expect to get estimates from DHHS this week on additional costs caused by a computer glitch that allowed 19,000 people to get Medicaid benefits after they had lost eligibility.

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