AUGUSTA — Despite pressure from groups that oppose cuts to MaineCare, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate passed a revised state budget Tuesday that eliminates health care coverage for more than 20,000 people, cuts prescription drug coverage for senior citizens and reduces funding for Head Start.
Supporters say the spending cuts are necessary to cover an $83 million deficit in the Department of Health and Human Services through June 30, 2013, and put the state on a more stable financial path. MaineCare is the state’s Medicaid program.
Opponents packed a State House hallway Tuesday, creating a gantlet for lawmakers to pass through as they entered the Senate chamber. Protesters held signs – “Working Parents Need Safe Child Care” – and chanted “You work for us!”
The Senate voted 19-16 along party lines on an initial vote, and the House voted 74-69, also along party lines. In final votes Tuesday night, the Senate passed the budget 19-14 and the House approved it 75-61. The bill now goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said Republicans could have passed on the problems to the next Legislature, but they felt compelled to bring Maine more in line with what’s common in other states.
He said Maine spends $1,895 per MaineCare enrollee, while the national average is $1,187. Also, Maine is in the top five in the U.S. in the percentage of population on MaineCare, he said.
“It’s easy to say don’t cut,” he said. “It’s hard work to make targeted, precise reductions.”
After passing five previous budgets with bipartisan support, the parties split on the final budget of this year. Democrats spoke at length to decry the impact of the cuts, saying that children who benefit from Head Start, and the elderly who need help paying for prescription drugs, will be hurt.
“It’s a bean-counter budget,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, an Appropriations Committee member. “It’s all about the numbers. It’s not about the people. It draws a line at a certain number with callous disregard for a person’s medical needs.”
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he’s particularly concerned about cuts to Head Start and to a home visitation program that sends social workers into the homes of new parents.
“I oppose this irresponsible budget because every child in Maine deserves a good start,” he said.
Lawmakers returned to Augusta on Tuesday for what’s expected to be a three-day session to finish business for the year.
The budget was the main order of business, but lawmakers are also scheduled to vote this week on five separate bond bills that total more than $96 million. If approved, the borrowing proposals will go before voters in November.
One person who came to protest the proposed budget cuts was Kim Sprague of South Portland, who said she and her husband get $215 a week to help pay for child care for their 1-year-old. She’s worried that they will lose the subsidy, which means she would have to stay home to care for the child.
“If we lose the subsidy, I will not be able to work,” she said.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said Democrats exaggerated the impact of the cuts, and he reminded House members that taxpayers are important, too. “If we continue to act in the same manner, the only thing we’re going to harm is that most endangered of species, the Maine taxpayer,” he said.
The budget will:
• Reduce the number of low-income parents who receive MaineCare, which is projected to affect 14,500 people.
• Eliminate MaineCare coverage for all 19- and 20-year-olds, which is about 7,000 people. The state needs federal permission to make the cut. Republicans note that Maine is one of only 15 states to provide such coverage.
• Reduce funding to two programs that help senior citizens pay for their medications, which means about 1,500 Mainers will lose coverage. The change will make people with annual income exceeding $19,000 ineligible. That change also requires federal permission.
• Cut $2 million in state funding for Head Start, which will continue to receive more than $45 million in other state and federal funds.
Democrats asked how many children will be dropped from the program because of the cut. Republicans said they hope that administrative costs, not services to children, will be reduced.
Head Start officials said about 200 children will lose services.
During the Senate debate, Katz said Head Start is a federal program and the cut is only 7 percent of the total funding. “If Head Start can’t serve the same population with a 7 percent cut, I’d be surprised,” he said.
In the House, Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the state has enough money to get through until next year. “This budget and these cuts are not necessary,” she said. “There is no emergency.”
The budget also revives some tax cuts that lawmakers set aside earlier this year. It increases the pension income tax exemption from $6,000 to $10,000 a year, gives an income tax exemption to active-duty military personnel for work outside the state, and provides a sales tax exemption for commercial wood harvesting, commercial greenhouse and nursery products.
All of the tax cuts will start July 1, 2013, so they will have no impact on the current budget.
Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said the budget is an “attack on good, hard-working families.”
“It’s also an attack on our seniors,” he said. “It takes away their access to life-saving prescription drugs.”
Appropriations Committee Senate Chairman Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said despite all of the discussion about cuts, the state has increased funding for MaineCare by $323 million in the past two years. Maine, like all states, has had to cope with the loss of federal stimulus funds that helped pay for the program during the recession, he said.
In a statement released after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, said Republicans were elected to make tough decisions.
“Difficult choices need to be made, and failure to act is not an option,” he said. “For years the Democrats have not proposed long-term solutions to this problem that threatens all state government functions.”
State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: email@example.com