AUGUSTA — A pared-down budget for the Department of Health and Human Services won final approval Thursday as four Democratic senators went from opposing the plan to supporting it, based on assurances that efforts will be made to help veterans maintain health insurance.

The emergency budget closes a $121 million shortfall for the DHHS through June 30 and includes $25 million in cuts across state government in the next year. It won final Senate passage, 27-8. The House passed the budget last week, 109-27.

Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill after the Senate vote, his spokeswoman said Thursday night at the governor’s Capitol for a Day event in Madison.

A week ago, the measure fell two votes short of the two-thirds approval it needed in the Senate when all but three Democrats opposed it. Opponents said they could not approve a budget that ends MaineCare health insurance for 14,000 parents and phases out the program for adults without children.

After a week of negotiations, those cuts still remained. But some Senate Democrats said they could vote for the budget because they had been assured that Republicans, including the governor, will support efforts to direct the DHHS to help veterans who would otherwise lose health insurance under the new budget.

“We were not looking to move mountains,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco. “One of our proposals helps give veterans a softer landing and reflects many of Maine’s core values.”

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, said the issue of helping veterans crosses party lines.

“We’re all working together in good faith to make sure veterans get the benefits they deserve,” he said.
Switching from “no” to “yes” votes Thursday were Sens. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, Bill Diamond, D-Windham, Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, and Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford.

In a prepared statement issued after the Senate vote, LePage said he wrote a letter to the DHHS and the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management directing them to “please ensure that your departments work closely together to ensure that all information related to individual and family veterans’ benefits is made available.”

“I was pleased to hear the budget was passed in the Senate,” LePage said in the statement. “The fiscal integrity of our state is frail, but the passage of this bill today is a step in the right direction. … Unlike the federal government, Maine must be able to pay its bills and achieve a balanced budget.”

The House Democratic leader, Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, said she was relieved the budget didn’t take health care coverage away from 65,000 people, as the governor originally proposed.

While Thursday’s vote ended one budget battle, at least two more are likely in the next couple of months.

The Appropriations Committee will soon begin work on an additional $84 million in cuts to the DHHS that are needed in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Those cuts are expected to be even more contentious than the budget approved Thursday.

And in March, LePage is expected to propose a supplemental budget to address shortfalls in other areas of state government. Revenue forecasters who met Wednesday projected a $14 million shortfall in the current two-year budget, which runs through June 30, 2013.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com