Democrats accuse Republicans on budget committee of following LePage’s ‘secret marching orders’

Posted May 08, 2012, at 2 p.m.
Last modified May 09, 2012, at 6:11 a.m.
Paul LePage
AP
Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans and Democrats on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee appeared to part ways on Monday during negotiations over a 2013 supplemental budget package for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some lawmakers had been holding out hope that the two sides might find common ground and pass another bipartisan budget, but it now seems that whatever comes out of the committee will have only Republican support.

“It’s always preferable to have bipartisan support, but it appears that we are at a point where we aren’t quite able to bridge the divide,” Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday.

Democrats accused Republicans of capitulating to Gov. Paul LePage and his demands for structural changes to MaineCare.

“The governor has handed down secret marching orders to the Republicans with no intention of informing the public,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead House Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “I’m saddened to see such an end-run around the public and disregard for our working together. As a veteran member of this committee, I’ve never seen such an overstep by a governor. He may as well be chairing the committee.”

Late last week, the governor’s office presented a change package on the 2013 DHHS budget but shared it only with Republicans. Rotundo and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, didn’t get copies until late in the day and only after a request.

The Legislature’s non-partisan Office of Fiscal Program and Review was not given a copy of the proposed changes, according to the Democrats.

“The Republicans are choosing to abandon the bipartisan work this committee has done on five other budgets,” said Hill. “We are distressed to see the Republicans caving to the ideological right wing and disarray of their party rather than working together for the good of Maine people. In the aftermath of the convention, the radical right is emboldened and now hijacking the state’s business.”

“The statements made by Rep. Peggy Rotundo and Sen. Dawn Hill are outrageous, exaggerated and, in several cases, simply untrue,” House Speaker Robert Nutting said in a statement Tuesday.

“To say that ‘the governor has handed down secret marching orders’ is untrue,” he added. No Republican member of Appropriations has been told how to vote by the governor. They have their own thoughts and will craft a budget that best serves the people of their districts and of the state of Maine.”

Rosen also disagreed with the Democrats’ characterization of the process.

“I think the positions of both sides have been consistent for awhile,” he said. “Republican members feel it’s very important to modify some of the programs in DHHS in a way that achieves annual savings. We’re not interested in one-time fixes.

“The Democrats have been consistent that they cannot support a number of the changes needed. But it’s getting to the point where we have to move forward.”

In February, lawmakers approved a bipartisan supplemental budget that addressed a shortfall in DHHS for 2012. Many controversial items were removed from that budget, prompting many Democrats to support it.

However, many of the pieces have returned in the 2013 budget package, including eliminating optional coverage for 19- and 20-year olds and reducing coverage of parents of eligible children from 133 percent of poverty level to 100 percent.

Also on the table are major cuts to the Fund for Healthy Maine, the state’s tobacco settlement money, cuts to the Drugs for the Elderly program and the elimination of Head Start funding.

Other possible cuts include eliminating screening services for sexually transmitted diseases and eliminating optional services covered under MaineCare such as vision, chiropractic services, podiatry services, physical therapy and dental care.

Rosen said he expected his committee to pass a budget by the end of this week. It wasn’t clear Tuesday exactly what would be included.

The full Legislature is scheduled to reconvene next Tuesday to vote on the 2013 DHHS budget, five bond proposals totaling $95 million and at least one leftover piece of controversial legislation known as the “takings” bill.

Two weeks ago, the budget gap in the Department of Health and Human Services 2013 budget shrunk by about $7 million and now stands at $82.5 million. Just a few days later, state officials announced that revenues projections for 2013 were up by nearly $50 million.

In theory, those two pieces of good news should have made it easier on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, but that wasn’t the case.

Lawmakers have put off action on the 2013 DHHS supplemental budget because there are no easy answers. And although the financial outlook seems better on paper, a closer look suggests otherwise.

About $43 million of the increased revenue is pegged for 2012. The growth is much slower in 2013, largely because of income tax cuts that were included in last year’s biennial budget. Some Democrats have made an issue out of this, but most voted for that budget.

Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, also said last week that just because the state has more revenue doesn’t mean it should automatically be spent. “That’s part of why Maine is in such bad shape,” he said. “Anytime we saw extra money come in, we spent it.”

In addition to the MaineCare changes, the budget is likely to include cuts to general assistance, which were the focus of a line-item veto by Gov. LePage last month.

The governor has said recently that he would not consider bonds until lawmakers present him with a budget he likes, a promise he reiterated over the weekend in his remarks at the Maine Republican Party convention.

Committee work on the 2013 DHHS budget has been delayed due to serious computer errors in the MaineCare claims processing system that made the department’s actual financial situation unclear.

DHHS officials recently revealed that 7,000 individuals used MaineCare cards when they no longer were eligible, which resulted in $6.8 million in improper payments of state funds and $3.7 million in improper payments with federal funds.

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