Committee approves supplemental budget after stripping many items proposed by LePage

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted April 10, 2012, at 9:43 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee came to a consensus late Monday night on a supplemental budget package for 2012-13 that looks quite a bit different than what the governor initially proposed.

The budget could be voted on by the full Legislature later this week.

Gov. Paul LePage proposed a $37 million supplemental budget earlier this year to address shortfalls and make changes in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years.

The Legislature in February approved a $145 million supplemental budget for the Department of Health and Human Services through June 30 and still needs to deal with an estimated $80 million shortfall in DHHS for fiscal year 2013, which starts July 1.

The latest budget deals mostly with agencies outside of DHHS, although some elements are tied to that department. It included a number of cuts to various programs but also included new initiatives and funding priorities favored by the governor.

Most of the cuts proposed by LePage were restored by members of the Appropriations Committee, including all but $800,000 of a $2.4 million cut to the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy.

The committee rejected a proposed $1.7 million cut to Maine Public Broadcasting Network that had been proposed by the governor, who has called public funds for MPBN “corporate welfare.” Instead, MPBN will move to a fee-for-service model over the next five years.

One of the more controversial proposals contained in the governor’s budget — the creation of a new Office of Policy and Management — also was altered by lawmakers.

The office would still be created and would shift a number of staff members within the executive branch and save an estimated $900,000. However, some of the powers outlined by the governor for that office — including broad subpoena power without a judge’s approval — were stripped from the spending plan.

The Appropriations Committee 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 expenses that were higher than projected. Another $362,000 for additional staff at the Computer Crime Lab was approved as well to help address a backlog of cases.

The committee also agreed to cover an $8 million shortfall in the state’s Children’s Developmental Services Program.

Many tax breaks sought by the governor were eliminated from this budget, although those wouldn’t have gone into effect until 2014.

“The most important items in this budget are the ones that aren’t there anymore,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the ranking House Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “The committee did the right thing by taking out irresponsible, unfunded tax cuts, preserved critical services and prevented an ominous power grab from the executive.”

Another major piece of the supplemental budget deals with proposed changes to the state’s general assistance program.

Members of both parties had concerns with the governor’s initial proposals to rewrite the program to limit reimbursements to cities and towns to 50 percent of the costs of the program.

Large communities, such as Portland and Bangor, currently receive 90 percent reimbursement once a certain threshold is reached.

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

Lawmakers reached a deal to cap general assistance at 270 days, or longer with an exemption, and reduced the reimbursement to service center communities from 90 percent to 85 percent.

The budget also creates a work group to study general assistance in Maine and report back recommendations later this year. The time limit and reimbursement reduction would sunset within one year and the hope is that the work group would address any long-term changes.

LePage was in New York City on Tuesday and not available for comment. He was a featured panelist at the “Tax Policies for 4% Growth” conference hosted by the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the administration is “very disappointed” with the amendments on general assistance.

“This is another example of kicking the can down the road,” she said. “It does not achieve structural changes needed to the welfare program.”

Since 2008, she said, funding for general assistance has grown from $6.7 million to an estimated $14.3 million for 2013.

“We have a governor who’s not looking to balance a budget just for the short term. He’s forward-thinking, he’s trying to get the state in better fiscal health.”

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/10/politics/committee-approves-supplemental-budget-after-stripping-many-items-proposed-by-lepage/ printed on September 18, 2014