AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage put general assistance in the spotlight when he used his line-item veto power last Saturday to eliminate some of the program’s funding in the 2013 budget.
When the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee goes back to work next week, general assistance no doubt will be on lawmakers’ minds, but that’s not the only business they have left to settle.
Awaiting committee members when they return are a number of leftover bills that were not resolved prior to the scheduled end of the session. Those bills include about a dozen bond proposals and nearly 50 bills approved by the Legislature but which need funding before they can be finally enacted.
The biggest remaining piece, though, is a Department of Health and Human Services supplemental budget for the 2013 fiscal year.
So far, despite their differences, members of the Appropriations Committee have crafted three bipartisan budgets out of initial drafts from Gov. Paul LePage that contained some eyebrow-raising items, such as altering eligibility requirements for MaineCare recipients and eliminating funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
The big questions are whether bipartisan cooperation will continue when the Appropriations Committee returns to piece together another budget to address a shortfall in DHHS funding and whether the Legislature will let the governor dictate the terms of how that’s accomplished.
Earlier this month, the Appropriations Committee found unanimous compromise on general assistance, which had been a big sticking point of a supplemental budget package put forth by the governor.
That compromise addressed a $4 million general assistance shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year and funded all but $1.7 million of an estimated $8 million shortfall in 2013.
Although it did not include the changes LePage wanted, the budget did reduce from 90 percent to 85 percent the maximum reimbursement to “service center” communities such as Portland and Bangor that distribute the most assistance. It also caps housing assistance at nine months, with some exceptions.
Additionally, the budget created a task force comprised of DHHS members and stakeholders 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 wanted to go much further with cuts and, when that didn’t happen, he opted to do something that had never been done before in Maine: He used his line-item veto authority to strike that funding, even though the budget passed unanimously through the Senate and with about 75 percent support in the House.
Asked Thursday about his cuts to general assistance, LePage said Maine annually spends $297 million more than the national average in taxpayer-funded aid programs and that it was important to the state to begin making reductions in spending.
“We need to get our accounts together, and if we don’t it will cost us dearly,” he said.
As to whether he’d attempt to get new proposals passed, or get the Legislature to accept his existing ones, LePage said, “I’m going to try to get the Legislature to build a little courage and do what we should have done 20 years ago — create some jobs.”
The Legislature had the opportunity to come back this week to vote on LePage’s line-item vetoes but opted not to. That means the cuts will stand, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be addressed by the Appropriations Committee as part of the 2013 supplemental budget.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said despite the governor’s recent line-item vetoes and threats of additional vetoes, the Legislature has the responsibility to do what’s best for Maine and provide checks and balances to the executive branch of government.
In short, she said, lawmakers need to stand up to the governor.
“I don’t see how the general assistance fight goes away,” she said. “If the governor was more flexible we could work to get this done, but he’s shown a real inflexibility on this issue.”
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the Senate chairman of the Appropriation Committee, said his position and the sentiment of the committee hasn’t changed on general assistance. He said the budget writers worked hard to find common ground among Republicans and Democrats and that compromise is what ended up in the budget.
It’s entirely possible that the Legislature could restore funding to general assistance, a move that would no doubt tempt LePage to use his veto power once more. If that happens, the Legislature could be forced to uphold or overturn a veto.
The Appropriations Committee is not likely to begin extensive work on the 2013 DHHS supplemental budget until it has two critical pieces of information: The first is additional analysis from DHHS officials on the recent computer glitch that led to as many as 19,000 ineligible people remaining on the MaineCare rolls. The second is a update from the revenue forecast committee to see whether the state has more money coming than initially projected.
Although some of the focus is now on the state’s general assistance program, the budget was likely to divide Republicans and Democrats along ideological lines anyway. Most of the easy cuts were made when the Legislature passed a budget in February to address the DHHS shortfall in 2012. What’s left is deep cuts to the MaineCare program, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program.
“A lot of this boils down to ideology, not balancing the budget,” Hill said. “We have no sense of security that what we agree on in May won’t be vetoed.”
Despite the expected focus on general assistance and the 2013 DHHS budget, the Appropriations Committee has other work to do as well.
On the many bond proposals, Hill said she couldn’t predict what might happen, but she viewed a bond package as essential, particularly for transportation infrastructure.
Rosen said he’s not sure if there will be a bond package or not.
“We have to figure out, ‘What is our capacity to borrow and what are the categories that would make up a borrowing package?’” he said.
All bonds also require voter approval and any borrowing questions likely would appear on the November ballot.
Members have about 50 bills sitting on what’s known as the Special Appropriations Table.
“Most of these are all very good bills that, if not for the fiscal note, would become law,” Hill said. “The big question is: What do we have left to fund some of these bills?”
Rosen, who has been a member of the Appropriations Committee for more than one Legislature, said the Special Appropriations Table is an important but often overlooked part of the political process.
“It’s really a safety valve,” he said. “Running that table is one of the last pieces we do and we do it at the very end because it’s all contingent on what we have available. In most cases, we don’t have enough money to fund everything that’s there, so that will require us to make some choices.”
BDN business editor Matt Wickenheiser contributed to this story. Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.