Lawmakers came together in near unanimity last week in order to balance the state budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. Next week, the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee turns its focus to the next fiscal year in order to keep the rest of the state budget in balance.
Much of the committee’s work will involve finding the funds needed to ensure MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, can meet its obligations. The state Department of Health and Human Services says it expects to need $32.8 million more next fiscal year in order to be able to make payments to health care providers. That amount would draw down about $53 million in federal Medicaid funds.
Lawmakers have yet to determine which other funding requests from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration they’ll vote to fulfill and which they won’t.
They’ve identified a number of options for coming up with the funds needed to fill the gap between requested funds and available revenues. They include an across-the-board, 3 percent cut for most state programs; eliminating the sales tax exemption on purchases made by hospitals and private colleges; and building a higher state government job vacancy rate into the budget in order to realize savings.
As with any supplemental budget designed to satisfy an immediate need to keep the state’s budget in balance, it’s difficult to apply strategic thinking to short-term, budget-balancing decisions. But that’s just what lawmakers need to do to the extent possible with this budget.
Fortunately, some options under consideration can help nudge the state toward accomplishing what should be long-term, strategic objectives.
One option on the table is a $1.50 cigarette tax hike — to $3.50 a pack from $2 — and applying the same tax rate to all other tobacco products. Higher tobacco taxes not only deliver new revenues to state coffers — the move would bring in more than $55 million in the next fiscal year — they aid the state in accomplishing public health objectives. High tobacco taxes have been shown to reduce smoking among youth, young adults and low-income residents, lowering smoking-related health care costs long-term.
Lawmakers can also advance strategic objectives by rejecting a cut under consideration: A suggestion to impose a six-month cap on methadone and Suboxone treatments for those suffering from addiction. It’s a move that would likely end up costing the state more long-term. Without treatment, those addicted to drugs are more likely to continue abusing, contributing to a costly and vicious public health epidemic and cycle of criminal behavior.
Also on the list of funding options are proposals to dig into two sources of funding for the Efficiency Maine Trust that pay for energy conservation and efficiency investments, including home heating system conversion and electricity rate-cutting programs championed by LePage. The Maine Legislature already determined last year that the proper use of these funds is for investments in energy efficiency that yield a long-term payoff. Lawmakers this year should reject attempts to use those funds for other purposes and undermine state energy efficiency programs.
Lawmakers’ options are limited, but the Legislature doesn’t have to sacrifice long-term, strategic priorities for the state in order to keep the state budget in balance for the short term.