AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee will return to the State House on Monday in hopes of completing work on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to close a gap in this year’s budget and send it along to the full Legislature.
Appropriations Committee members adjourned late Thursday night after several days of negotiations behind closed doors and votes on a handful of measures contained in the LePage budget.
The supplemental budget package from LePage is an attempt to close a $153 million gap that’s developed in the current budget, largely the 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 package also contains the first part of LePage’s plan to negotiate a new wholesale liquor distribution contract for the state — which adds $20 million to the gap in the current budget while promising more funds for the state in the future — and a handful of new spending initiatives.
Those new spending initiatives include $28.4 million the LePage administration says it needs to upgrade the state’s Medicaid billing systems to comply with federal requirements and $4.2 million to cover a spike in the number of children who have entered the state’s foster care system.
All votes taken so far by the Appropriations Committee have been unanimous, according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review.
The committee has voted to restore half of a $1.4 million cut the LePage administration proposed for an account that provides subsidies to families that adopt children from state care but don’t qualify for federal subsidies.
Otherwise, the committee has yet to vote on sections of the budget that have caused the most disagreement among legislative Democrats and Republicans.
The two parties, for example, have wrangled over a measure favored by majority Democrats that would include the state’s two charter schools in $12.6 million in education funding cuts. The LePage administration initially proposed the education funding cuts without applying them to the two newly opened charter schools, which enroll 106 students.
In a party-line vote, the Education Committee recommended applying the proposed cuts to charter schools as a matter of fairness. That vote elicited an angry response from Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Republican legislators, who accused the Democrats of targeting charter schools for political reasons.
Including charter schools, a key element of LePage’s education reform agenda, in budget cuts has been a political point of contention, but whether they’re ultimately affected by the cuts will have no impact on the size of the budget gap.
In addition, Democrats and Republicans have disagreed on a number of cuts slated for the Department of Health and Human Services. Democrats on the Health and Human Services Committee last week submitted recommendations that would add $7.6 million to the budget gap by sparing substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, prescription drug aid for seniors and rural hospitals from the administration’s proposed cuts.
Democrats and Republicans have also disagreed on a LePage administration proposal to cap general assistance payments to municipalities for the year at $10.1 million, though that proposal wouldn’t have a direct affect on the size of the budget gap.