House, Senate overwhelmingly support $153M budget-balancing package

Posted Feb. 21, 2013, at 1:05 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 21, 2013, at 1:56 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House and Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday in support of a $153 million plan designed to balance the state budget until June 30. The plan cuts $12.6 million from local school aid and fills a nearly $90 million budget hole in the state’s Medicaid program.

The House voted 129-14 and the Senate voted unanimously, 35-0, to support it. The budget, which won unanimous approval from the budget-writing Appropriations Committee last week, now goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature.

LePage has 10 days to act on it, and he hasn’t made a decision on signing the budget into law or vetoing all of parts of it, said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.

“As with any unanimous budget, no one gets everything he or she wants,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. “While we were disappointed that we fell short of restoring cuts to our schools, it only strengthens our resolve to do so next time.”

House members and senators Thursday praised the Appropriations Committee for crafting a bipartisan solution.

“It’s a solution that does achieve what is required by the constitution,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. “I think this bodes well for the work we need to get done in the upcoming biennial budget.”

The budget approved by the House and Senate is substantially different from the package LePage proposed to the Legislature in early January, which balances the state budget to account for 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 Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, in a series of unanimous votes in recent weeks, reversed many of the cuts LePage proposed to health and human services programs.

The 13-member panel opposed capping General Assistance payments to municipalities at $10.1 million for the year and restored $1.75 million in cuts the administration had proposed for the state’s “Drugs for the Elderly” program, which provides senior citizens with prescription drug assistance.

The panel also opposed scaling back payments to some substance abuse treatment and mental health service providers, reversed $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.

The Appropriations Committee also 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 also scaled back cuts the administration proposed for senior citizen services such as Meals on Wheels.

Some House Democrats were still unsatisfied Thursday with the budget package. Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, said it still contained a number of damaging service cuts that will ultimately result in higher costs. He proposed reversing them by partially rolling back income tax cuts passed two years ago as part of LePage’s first two-year budget.

“The problems that these lost services are addressing have not simply gone away,” Stuckey said on the House floor. “Most will simply resurface in less appropriate venues.”

Stuckey’s amendment — which was quickly shot down by a 121-22 vote — proposed a 2 percent surcharge on individual tax filers earning $200,000 or more and joint filers earning $250,000 or more.

Other House members Thursday said they would support the supplemental budget but said the state needs to fundamentally address the fiscal problems that periodically leave the state with budget gaps.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee, said he was disappointed by Democrats’ ultimate inability to include the state’s two newly opened charter schools in cuts to local school aid, an issue that sharply divided Democrats who have generally opposed charter schools and Republicans who support the independently operated public schools of choice.

“In the next budget, we have to do better than this,” MacDonald said. “We have to build up our public education system rather than see it curtailed.”

The Appropriations Committee offset its opposition to LePage’s recommended 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 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.

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