AUGUSTA, Maine — In a unanimous vote early Wednesday, state lawmakers approved a funding plan to end controversial waitlists that have prevented Mainers with developmental disabilities from receiving medical and other support services, in some cases for more than two years.
This decision was one of dozens of unanimous votes made by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee in the predawn hours that sought to close a budget gap of more than $30 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Committee members hailed the votes as a victory for bipartisanship during a contentious legislative session. The waitlists alone, said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, might possibly be “the biggest thing that will come out of the Legislature this session,” and a step lawmakers have sought to take for years.
Lawmakers have been under pressure since January to assemble a supplemental budget to address a projected deficit of nearly $90 million. Gov. Paul LePage, however, angry about changes made to his budget proposal last year, particularly temporary increases in sales, meals and lodging taxes, announced last fall he would not submit a budget bill this year.
He is the first Maine governor in recent memory not to lead the budget-writing process.
The waitlists have been highlighted in recent months by opponents of expanding Medicaid in Maine who argued that they should be eliminated before the state considers Medicaid expansion.
“This is a wonderful proposal,” said Mary Lou Dyer, managing director of the Maine Association for Community Service Providers. “It has been painful for so many families to have their children leave public school after getting such great supports and then graduate and not be able to get into adult programs. This really goes a long way toward meeting those needs.”
According to Charlene Kinnelly, also of the providers association, the plan unveiled Wednesday will move at least 50 “Section 21” developmentally disabled people — who have the most serious need for services — off waitlists, but won’t eliminate the lists completely. It also will eliminate the more than 400-person waitlist for “Section 29” services, which refers to a different level of disability.
“Our bipartisan proposal provides critical funding for our seniors, individuals with disabilities and for those suffering from mental illness,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. “For months, lawmakers have emphasized the importance of moving our most vulnerable citizens off of waitlists (for services). We worked collaboratively to address all of these concerns in a responsible way.”
“This is a huge thing, I believe,” said Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, early Wednesday. “It feels so different to be able to put something forward that’s actually going to go out and benefit so many people.”
Katz and others credited Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, for developing the plan to reduce the waitlists, though Flood shared the credit with Democrats who he said also added critical funding for Maine nursing homes. That money would be concentrated on increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for nursing homes, many of which are losing money on Medicaid patients under current rates.
“This is the kind of thing that everyone can feel good about — a change that helps people who really need it,” said Flood, who added that it represents the most significant bipartisan amendment to a budget bill that he has been involved with in his political career.
Flood, who served four terms in the House and is at the end of his first Senate term, is not seeking re-election.
Funding for waitlists and nursing homes is coming from a variety of sources, including Medicaid dollars freed this year when thousands of adults with children were removed from the program.
Spending in these areas is not projected to affect the state’s General Fund, which supports most of state government, next year, though by fiscal year 2016 it will be funneling millions of dollars a year toward the developmentally disabled programs and nursing homes.
Under the plan, the funding would begin to be allocated to its new uses in June 2015, establishing a baseline funding level for future budgets.
The committee, which is known traditionally for its work to achieve bipartisan consensus, especially on budget bills, convened about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday and took dozens of votes on budget items related to fiscal year 2015 over the course of several hours.
The committee’s votes, which went on past 6 a.m. Wednesday, constitute recommendations to the full Legislature and ultimately Gov. Paul LePage.
The committee voted against a series of tax increases that were under consideration, including higher taxes on tobacco products and sales tax exemptions for hospitals and private colleges. The committee also recommended increased funding for Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, the Bridge Year program and Executive Branch salaries.
To balance the books, the committee has recommended trimming numerous budget lines and forgoing expenses, such as adjusting the schedule for Medicaid reimbursement payments to hospitals that essentially pushes some payments into fiscal year 2016 — a move that could prompt a swift response from LePage, who has made repaying hospitals a policy priority.
Last month, the committee recommended a budget bill, LD 1843, which closed a $40 million gap in the current year and saved $18 million in 2015. That bill, which passed 121-6 in the House and 33-1 in the Senate, went into law on April 3 without LePage’s signature.
It restored cuts proposed by the LePage administration in public school funding, Head Start and higher education. It also funded merit and longevity pay increases for state employees.
The budget bill, which has not yet been printed by the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes office, will head to the full Legislature for consideration in the coming days.