Budget panel opposes health, human services cuts proposed by LePage

Gov. Paul LePage
Gov. Paul LePage
Posted Feb. 11, 2013, at 12:26 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 11, 2013, at 6:14 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee on Monday unanimously opposed a handful of cuts to health and human services programs recommended by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. To make up for it, the 13-member panel voted to delay Medicaid payments to hospitals from the current fiscal year to the next and found savings in accounts meant for debt service and hazardous waste cleanup.

Appropriations Committee members Monday also delved into the politically sensitive question of whether education funding cuts proposed to balance the budget should extend to charter schools, continuing a debate that has divided legislative Democrats and Republicans since early last month when the LePage administration came out with its list of recommended cuts.

The votes came as the appropriations panel continued work on LePage’s $153 million supplemental budget proposal, which aims to fill a hole in the current state budget that developed largely as a result of flagging state revenues, cost overruns in the state’s Medicaid program and the federal government’s denial of most of Maine’s requests to scale back Medicaid coverage.

The votes, all unanimous, included a couple of measures to scale back the size of cuts recommended for payments to some substance abuse treatment and mental health service providers. Those votes, for example, spared providers of adult mental health crisis services from an 18 percent, or $1.7 million, cut. The committee vote would instead leave them with a 5 percent, or $661,000, cut through June 30.

Committee members also opposed about $5 million in proposed cuts that would reduce reimbursement rates for rural hospitals and outpatient service providers.

And the panel voted against a $232,000 cut to a program that uses state money to help low-income residents meet a deductible that’s necessary before they become eligible for health insurance through Medicaid.

Appropriations Committee members continue to vote on individual provisions of LePage’s supplemental budget proposal in hopes of advancing the package to the full Legislature in the coming days.

Committee members late Monday started balancing their moves to reverse LePage administration-recommended cuts with unanimously supported measures that would delay nearly $2 million in Medicaid payments to hospitals from the current fiscal year to the next — which also delays $3.3 million in federal matching funds — and strike about $3.25 million in new spending the LePage administration says it needs to upgrade the state’s Medicaid billing systems to comply with federal requirements.

In addition, the committee budgeted $1.3 million in savings from a state account used to pay debt service, recovered $500,000 in unspent money from a handful of Department of Environmental Protection funds that pay for hazardous waste cleanup, and recovered another $550,000 in unspent funds from a Health and Human Services account that pays for in-home medical equipment.

Appropriations Committee members, who will resume work on the supplemental budget Tuesday, have yet to work through a number of the most politically divisive provisions, including about $25 million more in new spending to upgrade the state’s Medicaid billing systems.

Another is a measure favored by majority Democrats that would include the state’s two charter schools in $12.6 million in education funding cuts. The LePage administration initially proposed the education funding cuts without applying them to the state’s two newly opened charter schools, which enroll 106 students. Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee voted to recommend that charter schools share in the cuts as a matter of fairness.

Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier told Appropriations Committee members Monday that extending the education funding reduction to charter schools would mean a total impact of about $5,100, but the change would have no effect on the budget gap lawmakers are trying to fill through the supplemental budget.

“The impact of the proposal to apply the cut across the board to all of those things the cut was not applied to is negligible,” said Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade. “Is that a fair statement?”

“Some would say that. Yes,” Rier said.

Republicans have attacked last month’s Education Committee charter schools vote because the committee didn’t also target the state’s private academies, which enroll about 5,000 students whose tuition is funded by their local school districts, and a handful of other specialized schools to which local school districts pay tuition.

Rier on Monday informed Appropriations Committee members of the budget impact if lawmakers choose to extend the education funding cuts to private academies in addition to charter schools. That change would have an effect of about $265,000, he said.

“That wouldn’t affect any of the supplemental budget,” Rier said. “It would reduce how much private academies are able to charge publicly funded students who attend their schools.”

Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, suggested applying the education funding cuts to charter schools would, in particular, help the two districts that are home to the largest number of charter school students. Some 50 students from School Administrative District 54 in the Skowhegan area attend the state’s two charter schools, along with 15 students from SAD 59 in the Madison area.

“While in this room, $5,000 writ large across the budget across the entire state does get to be rounding errors in a lot of cases,” Carey said, “for these particular schools it does get to be a lot of money.”

SAD 54 would be able to keep about $2,600 out of the $179,000 funding reduction it expects as a result of the proposed supplemental budget. SAD 59 would be able to pay the charter schools about $700 less out of the $61,000 funding reduction it expects.

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