June 21, 2018
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Budget action held for one more day to accommodate amendments

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — House Republicans postponed debate and action on the Department of Health and Human Services supplemental budget on Wednesday to allow proposed amendments to be drafted, a process that could make or break a deal.

Last week, members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee agreed unanimously on a compromise budget package that would address a $120 million shortfall in the current fiscal year DHHS budget.

As part of a bipartisan compromise, the latest budget proposal caps MaineCare funding for childless adults, or noncategoricals, at $40 million by freezing enrollment and through natural attrition. That would reduce the number of noncategoricals on the MaineCare rolls but would not eliminate them from coverage, something Gov. Paul LePage wanted.

The committee also agreed to reduce the eligibility threshold for parents of children on MaineCare from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 133 percent. That change will not take effect until October.

Since the budget passed through the Appropriations Committee last week, its details have been discussed at Republican and Democratic caucus meetings.

In order for the budget to go into effect immediately, a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate need to vote for it. That could be a tough needle to thread for both sides.

“We worked hard in Appropriations to vote out a budget that struck a balance, but it’s not a Democratic budget,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the ranking minority member on Appropriations.

Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the assistant House majority leader, said he thinks the fact that the Appropriations Committee approved the budget unanimously is a good sign that it reflects compromise.

“I think the dynamic of the governor’s strong position has complicated things,” he said. “But we have to and we will pass a budget.”

On Thursday, though, when the budget hits the House floor for debate, lawmakers will consider several amendments that have been submitted since Tuesday.

One amendment, sponsored by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, would address a small portion that has riled conservative House members and the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which has considerable influence in the party.

The budget compromise preserves a tax on insurance claims with Dirigo Health that had been set to drop from 1.87 to 1.64 percent. By keeping the tax at 1.87 percent, the state would retain about $5 million in revenue.

Thomas’ amendment would restore the planned reduction but that $5 million would need to be addressed.

Democrats are likely to go along with that amendment in exchange for restoration of an estimated $14 million in funding to hospitals for the rest of fiscal year 2012 and 2013, according to Rotundo.

Another amendment, offered by Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, would restore funding for MaineCare eligibility for parents earning up to 200 percent of poverty and would offset those costs by increasing savings through hospital emergency care management and reimbursement reform for hospital emergency care services.

There is not likely to be Republican interest in supporting Dill’s amendment.

Gov. LePage has expressed displeasure with the compromise budget in the last week, but it’s still not clear if he will support it. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Wednesday that the governor wants to see the final bill and any amendments before he weighs in.

In December, LePage unveiled his plan to cut $220 million from DHHS to address a shortfall in 2012 and 2013. That initial plan would have removed 65,000 people from MaineCare by making structural changes to the program he says are necessary to keep it solvent in the years ahead.

Appropriations Committee members rejected some items in the governor’s budget and worked for weeks to find alternatives.

Cushing said House members have been told to expect double sessions on Thursday with the goal of passing the budget before lawmakers go home for the day.

The budget then goes to the Senate where the process starts all over again.

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