Legislative panel approves $153M plan to balance budget, refers it to full Legislature

Posted Feb. 13, 2013, at 5:12 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2013, at 7:14 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Gov. Paul LePage Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee unanimously signed off on a $153 million supplemental budget package late Wednesday afternoon that fills a hole in the current year’s budget.

Before casting the final vote to approve the budget package, the 13-member panel restored $1.75 million in cuts Gov. Paul LePage’s administration had proposed for the state’s “Drugs for the Elderly” program and another $173,000 in cuts the administration proposed for various senior citizen services, such as Meals on Wheels.

The panel also booked $1 million in additional savings from the operating budget of the state Legislature.

While Democrats were able to restore many of the health and human service program cuts they had opposed throughout the budget process, they yielded to Republicans on a Democrat-supported measure that would have included the state’s two newly opened charter schools in $12.6 million in education funding cuts.

Republicans and Democrats had wrangled more than a month over whether to extend cuts to the two independently operated, public schools of choice, which enroll 106 students. The LePage administration initially proposed the cuts without applying them to charter schools. Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee late last month, however, voted to recommend that charter schools share in the reductions as a matter of fairness.

“Charter schools are a crucial part of education reform in Maine, and Republicans feel strongly about expanding that opportunity for Maine children, not cutting it back,” House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said in a statement.

Republicans and Democrats on the panel congratulated each other Wednesday for unanimously approving the supplemental budget, which fills 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 budget next goes to the full Legislature. A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage said the governor had yet to review the changes Appropriations Committee members made to his supplemental budget proposal. The budget will go to LePage’s desk for his signature after it makes its way through the House and Senate.

“This was a great warm-up for the work that we have to come,” said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, referring to LePage’s $6.3 billion proposal for the upcoming two-year budget cycle.

“I know some of these tough issues, all of those are coming back, so it’s going to be difficult,” said Sen. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop. “This really gets our feet wet. This is a mini version of what we’re going to be dealing with.”

The appropriations panel had negotiated behind closed doors for more than a week to arrive at a final budget package.

Throughout that time, the Republicans and Democrats on the committee cast unanimous, line-item votes that were at odds with LePage administration proposals, particularly in the health and human services area.

Appropriations Committee members late Tuesday night opposed the administration proposal to cap General Assistance payments to municipalities to $10.1 million for the year.

Committee members had previously opted to scale back the size of cuts recommended for payments to some substance abuse treatment and mental health service providers, opposed $5 million in proposed cuts that would reduce reimbursement rates for rural hospitals and outpatient service providers, and voted against a $232,000 cut to a program that helps low-income residents meet a deductible that’s necessary before they become eligible for health insurance through Medicaid.

Last week, the committee voted to restore half of a $1.4 million cut the LePage administration proposed for subsidies to families that adopt children from state care but don’t qualify for federal subsidies.

The panel offset their opposition to those reductions with measures that partially delay a Medicaid payment to hospitals from one fiscal year to the next and strike about $3.25 million in new spending the LePage administration said it needed to upgrade the state’s Medicaid billing systems to comply with federal requirements.

Appropriations members also budgeted savings from accounts that pay for debt service, hazardous waste cleanup and in-home medical equipment.

In addition to cuts, the LePage administration has proposed plugging the budget hole largely by dipping into two state reserve accounts for about $57 million, delaying $18.5 million in local school aid payments from the current school year to the next, and using $14 million in revenue from the Oxford Casino.

Legislative leaders praised the Appropriations Committee members for their work on the supplemental budget.

“Democrats and Republicans worked together to reduce some of the harm caused by the governor’s proposals,” House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a statement. “As we make these tough cuts now, we must consider longer-term solutions that will prevent continuous budget shortfalls, including a balance of spending cuts, efficiencies, and a fair tax system.”

“The challenges will be huge, but the unanimous Appropriations Committee vote by Republicans and Democrats alike shows that at least, to this point, the two parties are doing what they were sent here to do: work together to solve Maine’s problems,” Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said in a statement. “Hopefully this early success is a good sign of things to come as we work to rein in state spending.”

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