March 19, 2019
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Meeting on DHHS budget abruptly called off

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Rep. Margaret Rotundo, D-Lewiston, a member of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, studies documents during a hearing at the State House in Augusta in March 2011.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The battle over Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services took a new turn Thursday when the Legislature’s budget writing committee abruptly canceled a meeting scheduled for Friday.

Members of the Appropriations Committee have said recently they need more information from the department before continuing deliberations on the proposed cuts.

Last month, LePage released a supplemental budget for DHHS that reduced its state funding by $220 million over the next year and a half. There has been much opposition to the cuts, especially those affecting facilities for the elderly and those with disabilities.

Lawmakers have been frustrated by what they characterize as a lack of clear information from the department about the size of the gap between its spending and its allocation of state funds. Questions also remain about the causes of the shortfall.

Some of those questions were supposed to be addressed at a work session scheduled for Friday, but legislative leaders called off the meeting after they said it was clear that officials with DHHS and the Office of Fiscal and Program Review would not be ready.

LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said DHHS officials were ready for Friday’s meeting.

Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said it was more important to have accurate information than to finish a supplemental budget quickly.

Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said he was displeased with the sudden cancellation of Friday’s meeting but said it underscores the need for the Legislature to take a step back and not push through the governor’s budget.

Earlier in the week Republicans said they couldn’t go along with the governor’s proposed cuts to what are known as private nonmedical institutions, or PNMIs.

It’s possible that Gov. LePage could submit another DHHS proposal in the coming days. In an interview with a Portland TV station on Wednesday, the governor offered an alternative to the PNMI cuts, which total $60 million.

“If they give me authority over the Maine State Housing Authority we can fix the housing portion through the Maine State Housing Authority,” LePage said, according to a transcript of the TV interview.

Bennett said the governor recognized “all along” that an alternative would be needed to the PNMI cuts. “That is why he set aside $39 million in the budget stabilization fund that is available for the Legislature to use as they explore alternatives,” Bennett said.

On Thursday, she said the governor is the only one who has put a proposal on the table.

“If new plans are presented the governor will take a look at those. He has expressed a willingness to work with legislators to find solutions,” she said. “At the end of the day a balanced budget must be law — how we get there will take cooperation from many people.”

Democrats have said they are reluctant to offer a counterproposal until they have a better sense of the DHHS budget shortfall, specifically a breakdown of short- versus long-term impact.

In the meantime, timing — and politics — could become an issue.

During the second session of a Maine Legislature, a two-thirds majority of lawmakers needs to approve a bill in order for it to be enacted immediately. If a bill passes with only a simple majority, it doesn’t go into effect until 90 days after passage.

The governor has said that money for MaineCare will run out April 1, which would be before the 90 days are up.

That could create a problem and could hang a cloud over the entire session. If Democrats compromise and pass a two-thirds budget, some fear it gives Republicans a green light to push through everything else on their agenda with a simple majority vote. If Democrats hold out and force Republicans to pass a budget with a simply majority, they risk politicizing what some feel are serious cuts in services to people who drastically need them.

Earlier this week, Democrats reportedly angered Republicans when Sen. Dawn Hill and Rep. Peggy Rotundo — the minority leaders on Appropriations — neglected to sign the printed version of the DHHS supplemental budget bill. Traditionally, leaders of both parties on the committee sign the bill jacket as a show of good faith.

LePage was among those upset at Hill and Rotundo’s actions, according to Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, who met with the governor on Thursday.

“I think he felt as though it was a sign that Democrats were not interested in being at the table on this,” Hobbins said. “But that’s not the case. We have concerns, but we want to work with the governor and the majority.”

Although Hill said she’s willing to compromise, she remained strongly opposed to the governor’s proposal.

“Truthfully, I’m not even calling this a budget,” she said. “It’s unprecedented to fix this only within the department. I think it puts a stranglehold on us to keep this in the confines of DHHS.”

Hobbins agreed that his party’s preference is to deal with any shortfalls in the overall budget rather than looking only at DHHS.

House and Senate Republicans, along with LePage, have not yet supported that approach and want to address the $220 million DHHS shortfall before tackling any other budgets.

“Right now, we see this as a DHHS issue, but I think reality may dictate as this moves on that that might not happen,” Fredette said.

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