AUGUSTA – Sean Fritz of Augusta told lawmakers Wednesday that he works two jobs and is raising two children, despite serious heart problems. He asked them not to eliminate his Medicaid health insurance, which paid for his heart surgery.
“Without MaineCare, I would have had no way to pay for the cost of surgery,” Fritz testified before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. “I’m trying to raise a family on $25,000 a year. I’m always on the lookout for a better job.”
Fritz was one of many people who testified at a public hearing on new budget cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage because of a projected $164 million shortfall in funding for the two years starting July 1. LePage is proposing to end insurance through MaineCare — Maine’s Medicaid program — for 28,000 childless adults and some parents.
The administration also proposed changes Wednesday to the package of cuts it released Friday. It removed a provision that would have eliminated public funding for Maine Clean Election Act gubernatorial candidates and added language to eliminate funding for MPBN — the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
While the vast majority of those who testified during the five-hour hearing spoke in opposition, LePage earned high marks from business groups for his nearly $200 million tax-cut package.
Also, unions representing teachers and state workers thanked the administration for changing a proposal regarding the age at which retirees could qualify for health care coverage. The change would lower the age from 65 to normal retirement age, which is 60 or 62 for most workers.
The busy day at the State House began in the morning with a rally by the Maine Can Do Better Coalition, an umbrella organization for groups such as AARP, the Maine State Employees Association and the Maine Council of Churches.
“The governor’s proposed budget is irresponsible and immoral,” said Tammy Trask of the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods.
Representatives of the immigrant community once again protested proposed cuts to their benefits, with support from the NAACP.
Kathy Beland, a child care worker in Augusta, told the crowd that she opposes the governor’s proposal to eliminate her right to collectively bargain with the state. In an interview after the rally, Beland said she cares for several low-income children at her day care, and the state subsidies she receives ensure that the parents can continue to work.
“I may be forced to not be able to take these children,” she said. “These kids may end up in situations that aren’t as helpful. Parents just want to go to work.”
On Tuesday, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the administration considers the collective bargaining arrangement for child care workers unusual because there is no direct employer-employee relationship between them and the state. Few other states have such arrangements, she said.
More than 200 people turned out for the rally in the Hall of Flags to protest the cuts, some of which were in the governor’s original proposal and others of which were released Friday.
Holding handmade signs that said “No More Cuts They Hurt Us!” and “Protect Safety Net Programs,” the protesters said they oppose cuts to health insurance for low-income adults, limits on general assistance, and cuts to Medicare benefits for senior citizens.
Several people testified against a proposal to make people who receive federal cash assistance ineligible for general assistance from their hometowns.
Donald Simoneau of the American Legion said he interprets that to mean that people who receive veterans benefits or Social Security could not ask for help.
“Please do not punish the poorest of the poor,” he said.
Nancy Fritz of the Statewide Homeless Council said current regulations on general assistance are strict enough.
“We are appalled at this most recent budget change package, which proposes to even further restrict access to the general assistance program by poor Maine residents and/or those who are experiencing hard times,” she said.
The president of the Maine Council of Churches, which represents nine Christian denominations, said churches are continuing to see an increase in requests for help. Silver Moore-Leamon described the state budget as a “moral document.”
“Cutting people off from public benefits is not reform, any more than suddenly pulling a rug out from under someone is inviting them to sit down and rest,” Moore-Leamon said.
Sawin Millett, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said changes in the proposed package of cuts include eliminating MPBN funding. MPBN was to receive about $2 million a year.
John Isacke, vice president and CFO of the network, told lawmakers that the cut would “change dramatically” what the statewide radio and television network can do. “We urge you to reject the governor’s proposal,” he said.
Millett said the governor also is proposing to move up the date for removing the state’s public notices from newspapers, from 2013 to 2012. That would save the state $200,000 in the second year of the two-year budget cycle.
Newspaper executives from across the state told lawmakers that a similar bill was unanimously rejected this week by the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee.
“It is bad for our business and it is terrible for government transparency,” said Anthony Ronzio, president of the Maine Press Association and editor and publisher of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: