AUGUSTA – A clash of political philosophies will play out at the State House this week as lawmakers consider more than $200 million in Medicaid spending cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.
While LePage and his administration describe a projected $221 million budget deficit in the Department of Health and Human Services as a crisis, Democrats continued to question the numbers Monday.
Democrats have suggested that it would be better to take a broader look at balancing the state budget for the next 18 months by reviewing spending in all departments.
On Monday, the Republican governor struck back at his Democratic critics by saying they have used scare tactics and are ignoring the need to cut spending on the MaineCare program, the state’s version of Medicaid.
“We want to get back on track financially, and it’s also changing a mentality,” said Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage. “He sees how … dependency can inhibit people and make things worse.”
She said the state can no longer afford a system that now provides various services to 361,000 people, and it’s necessary to scale back services to preserve help for those who need it most.
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, denied that Democrats have exaggerated the severity of the cuts. “We’ve raised reasonable questions about the impact on Maine people, which is far away from anything related to scare tactics,” she said.
Starting Wednesday, hundreds of people are expected at the State House to tell lawmakers why they oppose a proposed budget that would end MaineCare benefits for 65,000 people.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee plans three days of public hearings on the proposal, and the Portland-based Maine Can Do Better Coalition plans a rally Wednesday in the Hall of Flags. The coalition includes dozens of groups such as labor unions, the Maine Women’s Lobby, AARP, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, and Legal Services for the Elderly.
Joining the rally will be the Maine Children’s Alliance, which put out an advisory Monday alerting supporters that “Maine Kids are in Harm’s Way!!!”
Ned McCann, an alliance lobbyist, said the proposal to eliminate state funding for Head Start, reduce MaineCare coverage, end health insurance for 19- and 20-year-olds and cut child-care subsidies are major concerns for his group.
“Without that (child care) subsidy, parents may be forced to choose between staying home with their kids (and) working,” he said. “There could be a couple of thousand kids without that subsidy, which is going to be a nightmare situation.”
This week’s public hearings will be similar to ones earlier this year on LePage’s original $6 billion budget for the two years that started July 1.
His proposal to overhaul the state pension system drew hundreds of protesters – mostly current and retired state workers – along with people who were concerned about proposed cuts to DHHS programs.
Since the Legislature approved the budget in late June, problems with funding at the DHHS have continued. That’s why LePage is proposing an overhaul of MaineCare as a midterm correction to the budget.
An expansion of benefits over the past several years and a lack of federal money mean the state can no longer afford the program the way it’s designed, Bennett said. In his weekly radio address, LePage said Saturday that he will not look to other parts of the budget to solve the deficit in the DHHS.
“Any proposal that includes across-the-board cuts to our teachers, police officers, forest rangers and plow truck drivers is irresponsible,” LePage said in his address. “Nor will I support shifting the burden onto our hard-working taxpayers. Medicaid has expanded so much that other state agency budgets have been cannibalized.”
Cain and other Democrats have not suggested cuts involving teachers or police officers, but say a broader conversation about the budget is a better way to tackle the problem.
“The administration has been so focused on the numbers they haven’t spent as much time on the people and human impact,” Cain said.
Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers will meet today with DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to get a briefing on what’s behind the budget deficit. They will spend the rest of the week listening to the public.
Later, the committee will have work sessions and determine which parts of LePage’s proposal should move forward to the Legislature in January and whether any other proposals should be made.
“There are 186 legislators who, in their own minds, have to decide what they think is good policy,” Flood said. “Everybody will have things they want to look at in this.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]