Legislature gives initial approval to supplemental budget; LePage says he won’t sign

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted April 12, 2012, at 8:44 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House and Senate voted overwhelmingly late Thursday to approve a supplemental budget package for the current biennial budget.

The budget contains a total of $31 million in new spending for 2012 and 2013, which is offset by $41.8 million in general fund savings. Much of the document involves shifting savings from one area to fund a shortfall somewhere else.

Still, it contained many items that kept the Legislature’s budget-writing committee busy for weeks.

It also looked a lot different on Thursday then when Gov. Paul LePage first proposed the package last month, prompting the governor to lash out at lawmakers before they voted.

“I cannot put my signature on a bill that largely ignores welfare reform,” he said in a statement late Thursday afternoon. “I have major concerns about the overspending in the General Assistance welfare program. Spending in this welfare program has grown from nearly $7 million in 2008 to a projected $14.3 million in 2013. I am looking at a way to sustain our welfare programs. This budget keeps Maine on the same path it’s been on for 40 years and I will not be held hostage and forced to sign a budget that is irresponsible.”

A number of amendments were offered Thursday by two conservative House members, Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, and Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, that sought to restore cuts proposed by the governor, including to general assistance.

They weren’t even taken up for debate.

The initial House vote was 120-26. The Senate then voted unanimously, 35-0, late Thursday evening with minimal debate. Both totals were well above the two-thirds majority needed to have the budget go into effect immediately, although the bill still needs final enactment votes in each chamber on Friday.

“It’s disappointing to see the governor digging in his heels just because he didn’t get his way,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House Democratic leader. “I urge him to sign this reasonable budget that has received overwhelming bipartisan support.”

The general assistance portion of the budget caused the most heartburn among members of the Appropriations Committee, but members reached a unanimous compromise.

The compromise addresses a $4 million general assistance shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year and funds all but $1.7 million of an estimated $8 million shortfall in 2013.

In order to fund general assistance at the lower total for 2013, the budget reduces from 90 percent to 85 percent the maximum reimbursement to service center communities that distribute the most assistance, reduces the maximum individual benefit amount by 10 percent and by caps housing assistance at nine months, with some exceptions.

Additionally, a task force made up of DHHS members and stakeholders was created to find ways to make the program more efficient.

The governor, however, said the general assistance compromise does not do enough. He was upset that lawmakers removed his proposals to limit housing to 90 days with no exceptions, to reduce general assistance reimbursement to 50 percent across the board and to prohibit general assistance to any individuals who are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

“We must be forward thinking and look to how we can afford these types of programs in the future. Kicking the can down the road accomplishes nothing,” LePage said.

Most of the House Republicans who voted against the budget, like Timberlake, agreed with the governor that it didn’t include enough structural changes to general assistance.

Although he said he couldn’t sign the bill, LePage did not use the word “veto” anywhere in his statement. The budget can become law without his signature after 10 days.

He threatened to veto the biennial budget that passed last year after lawmakers altered it but ultimately signed it.

And although it drew LePage’s ire, the general assistance piece was not the only change to the supplemental budget package he offered.

Stripped from the governor’s original proposal were tax exemptions on wood harvesting equipment, exemptions on certain pensions and an income tax exemption for active military members who are stationed outside Maine. Those items had no fiscal impact on the 2012 or 2013 budgets.

A proposed cut of $4.2 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine and nearly all of the $2.4 million in cuts proposed to the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy were restored as well.

The budget put back a proposed cut of $1.7 million to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network but included language to move the state to a fee-for-service model of funding for MPBN over the next five years.

House Democrats were pleased with the compromise.

“The best parts of the budget are the items that are no longer in it,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. “We rejected short-sighted cuts to public education, irresponsible and unfunded tax cuts, and cuts to General Assistance that would have shifted costs to property taxpayers.”

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said late Thursday that despite the governor’s disappointment, the general assistance compromise was crucial.

Added Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York: “Budgets aren’t about making people happy.”

A number of new spending items sought by the governor were approved through the budget including: $630,000 for court security, $750,000 for indigent legal services, $360,000 for the Maine State Police’s Computer Crime Lab, $950,000 to the Gambling Control Board.

The bill also included an initiative to abolish the State Planning Office, create a new Office of Policy and Management and transfers a number of the State Planning Office’s functions to other agencies within state government.

Although the concept of a creating a new office was approved, a number of specifics were changed after some lawmakers expressed concerns that the new office would have too much power.

Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/12/politics/legislature-gives-initial-approval-to-supplemental-budget-lepage-says-he-wont-sign/ printed on July 25, 2014