Senate, House approve state budget; Democrats call bill a ‘sham’

Posted May 15, 2012, at 5:02 p.m.
Last modified May 16, 2012, at 11:44 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state budget rewrite that makes up for an $80 million shortfall largely through cuts in social services won initial Senate and House approval Tuesday as the Republican majority pushed the bill through following impassioned debates.

Republicans said the budget makes needed, structural changes in the Department of Health and Human Services to bring Maine in line with other states and make the department’s safety net of programs affordable over the long term.

Democrats labeled the GOP-backed budget bill as “heartless” and a “sham,” saying it cuts or eliminates programs that are critical to thousands of Mainers, and that part of it is based on shaky financial expectations. It passed 19-16 in the Senate and 74-69 in the House but faced further votes in both chambers.

The budget seeks to close the remaining $80 million hole in the DHHS budget for the year starting July 1. It is also the last revision in the state’s two-year, $6 billion budget that earlier this year faced a shortfall exceeding $200 million.

Adding to social service cuts made earlier this year, it would remove 19- and 20-year-olds from MaineCare, reduce funding for Head Start, cut Family Planning funding, eliminate state funding for home health care visits, remove about 1,500 low-income elderly and disabled people from a prescription drug assistance program, and make eligibility more difficult for the children’s health insurance program, among other cuts.

Republicans said the cost of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program that enrolls 361,000, has ballooned from 12.5 percent of the state budget in 1998 to 21 percent now, and per-capita Medicaid costs in Maine stand at $1,895 in Maine compared to $1,187 nationally.

“We have tried to be all things to all people, and in the end we can’t help people we are supposed to help,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a member of the Appropriations Committee, which worked on details of the spending package since the Legislature recessed in mid-April.

In the end, the committee’s Republican and Democratic members split over the contents of the package, unlike the previous five budget bills on which they have agreed.

“The greatest challenge for our committee and the Legislature this session has been managing the MaineCare and MaineCare-related programs, as we watch our federal funding decline and we careened over the dreaded financial cliff, losing hundreds of millions of dollars of one-time stimulus funding,” Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said before the vote.

But Democrats labeled the bill a “sham” and “heartless.”

“It’s a bean-counter budget. It’s all about the numbers, it’s not about people,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, a Democrat from Cape Neddick who serves on Appropriations.

“I do consider it a sham. I do consider it a shift, [and] a shaft. And truthfully, a shame for Maine,” Hill said. She said it’s a “sham” because it bases some savings on waivers that haven’t been approved by the federal government. She said that threatens to shift tens of millions of dollars in new shortfalls to the next Legislature.

“It is nothing more than an attack on the good, hardworking families of Maine,” said Sen. Philip Bartlett II, D-Gorham.

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