AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee pushed through a package of budget adjustments Thursday that Democrats said will needlessly push people off public services such as MaineCare.
With revenue projections on the upswing after more than three years of plummeting, Democrats said there is money enough to keep current services intact. Republicans continued their contention that structural changes need to be made in order to create long-term financial stability for state government.
One of the more hotly contested measures discussed and approved Thursday was the elimination of optional Medicaid coverage for 19- and 20-year-olds, which according to estimates will boot about 7,000 people from publicly funded health care coverage. That was one provision in a larger package of cuts that passed along party lines in the Appropriations Committee, whose 8-4 vote Thursday sends the measure to the full Legislature when it reconvenes Tuesday.
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor will make no decisions about the budget package until after the Legislature acts, but that the structural changes won by Republicans Thursday will likely be enough to prompt the chief executive to keep his veto pen in his pocket. LePage previously used a line-item veto against a legislative decision not to make drastic cuts to general assistance spending. The committee on Thursday approved smaller cuts to GA than the governor wanted.
Bennett said language in the budget bill that continues to pay hospitals money they have been owed for years as well as structural changes in DHHS will likely have enough of an effect to satisfy the governor.
“He understands that Republicans had a deal with Democrats regarding general assistance,” Bennett said. “He wasn’t happy about it, but he understands. We’re encouraged that we’re moving the right direction.”
House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, gathered with reporters Thursday morning to outline the Republican proposal.
In addition to closing an $83 million shortfall in DHHS, Raye and Nutting said the budget bill revives ideas and proposals that have been under consideration before, such as eliminating Medicaid coverage for some individuals in the upper tiers of financial eligibility and making cuts to taxes on retiree pensions and military benefits.
The budget proposal retains funding for adults with disabilities who live in home- or community-based arrangements other than health care facilities. It also preserves funding for general assistance programs and rejects a previous proposal to eliminate state funding for Head Start programs and includes a 6 percent decrease instead.
Raye and Nutting blamed Democrats for building a social services network, particularly within the MaineCare program, that is far beyond what is offered in many other states. Raye said Maine provides Medicaid coverage — known here as MaineCare — to 35 percent more of its population than the national average and in 2009 spent about $1,900 per capita on Medicaid compared with an average of less than $1,200 per capita in other states.
“The expansion-driven costs of MaineCare are now putting at jeopardy the very people who need MaineCare the most and have traditionally been its primary beneficiaries — the poor, elderly and disabled citizens who are the most vulnerable in our society,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “Likewise, left unchecked, it threatens to squeeze out other crucially important items such as K-12 education, higher education and a host of other vital functions of state government.”
Democrats shot back that part of the reason for the number of people on MaineCare is the state’s near-oldest-in-the-nation population and that cutting anyone’s safety net will likely end up costing the state more in other areas.
“Where’s the crisis?” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick. “Why aren’t we looking at ways to help these people? While I am a Democrat, I am also a businesswoman. I get it that we need to do restructuring and make improvements, but the wholesale removal of people from the system and labeling it as structural change, again I ask where’s the crisis?”
Nutting said some of higher-than-expected revenues that are projected for the next couple of years will be used to fund the tax cuts in the supplemental budget and continue other initiatives, such as covering a backlog of payments that are owed to the state’s hospitals.
“In the past, when our friends on the other side of the aisle received such reports, their reaction would be to patch over budget shortfalls without attacking the root of the problem: too much spending,” Nutting said. “This Legislature, however, will not repeat the mistakes of the past by using a one-time windfall to put a Band-Aid over our broken system, in hopes that the problem will go away. It won’t go away until we get our spending under control.”
The budget bill passed Thursday also reduces services for children with mental illness, foster care family reunification funding, a range of Medicare programs, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, smoking cessation programs and caps taxpayer-supported methadone treatments to a maximum of two years.
The bill also calls for the creation of a task force to study reforms to DHHS which wouldn’t take effect until the next biennium and tasks the next Legislature to merge the departments of agriculture and conservation.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, called the Republican budget bill “extreme and irresponsible.”
“The Republicans are making dangerous cuts that will harm seniors, children, and people with disabilities, which passing more unfunded tax cuts,” she said in a prepared statement.
“Democrats believe that responsible and reasonable changes can be made without hurting our economy or shifting costs onto more Maine people,” she said.