State budget wins final passage, goes to LePage’s desk

Gov. Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted April 13, 2012, at 7:24 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In quick action Friday, the Maine House and Senate voted to finally enact a supplemental budget package for the current biennium which Gov. Paul LePage has said he will not sign.

The House vote of 105-30 was above the two-thirds majority needed so that the budget goes into effect immediately. The Senate vote was 35-0. Such votes would also be enough to override a veto from the governor.

LePage said in a statement on Thursday that he would not sign the budget because it doesn’t do enough to address overspending in the state’s general assistance program.

“I cannot put my signature on a bill that largely ignores welfare reform,” he said. “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.”

The budget can still become law without his signature after 10 days.

Friday’s votes were among the last of the 125th Legislature’s second regular session, although there were a few outstanding bills that were expected to keep lawmakers working well into the night or beyond.

Lawmakers also need to return in May to settle a second supplemental budget addressing an estimated $85 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The budget that passed Friday had been contentious for several weeks but by the time it reached the House and Senate this week a compromise had been outlined.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the budget was the result of several days of hard work and sometimes tense negotiations.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said the budget committee “removed the politics and ideology and passed a reasonable budget. We made sure fairness prevailed by rejecting the shortsighted and irresponsible cuts proposed by the governor.”

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 such as Portland and Bangor that distribute the most assistance, reduces the maximum individual benefit amount by 10 percent, and 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. Mayors of Maine’s biggest cities worked with lawmakers on the general assistance compromise.

The governor, however, wanted to go much further with cuts. He proposed limiting housing assistance to 90 days with no exceptions, reducing general assistance reimbursement to 50 percent across the board and prohibiting general assistance to any individuals who are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

Those were all rejected by lawmakers.

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.

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 Computer Crime Lab and $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 transfer 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.

Lawmakers stripped other items from the governor’s original proposal including tax exemptions on wood harvesting equipment, exemptions on certain pensions and an income tax exemption for active military members who are stationed outside Maine.

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.

Finally, 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.

Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/13/politics/state-budget-wins-final-passage-goes-to-lepages-desk/ printed on December 25, 2014