March 12, 2010

New budget 'reflects the times we're in'CONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE/OBITUARIES

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by Joe Phelan Gov. John Baldacci unveils a two-year state budget that includes plenty of pain for everyone. The $6.1 billion state spending package proposes deep cuts due to the recession and increased cost of providing services. It would eliminate 219 state positions, requiring 139 layoffs. It would trim some state tax rebate programs, transfer some inmates to privately run prisons, and reduce public funding of gubernatorial campaigns.

Joe Phelan

John Baldacci
click image to enlarge

John Baldacci

AP

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Gov. John Baldacci on Friday proposed a $6.1 billion budget for the next two fiscal years that would cut hundreds of state jobs, increase fees and trim funding for higher education and prisons.

The budget renews a controversial proposal to send some prisoners to private, out-of-state facilities. It would increase the cost of health insurance for some state workers, and reduce public financing of candidates for governor.

And though the budget does not call for raising broad-based taxes, it would increase the cost of buying licenses for activities such as digging for worms or fishing for lobsters.

The budget would make deep cuts to address a projected $838 million revenue shortfall caused by the recession and the increased cost of providing services. The proposal is $200 million less than the previous two-year budget, marking the first time since 1974 that there would be a decrease in the state's biennial budget.

''We are in unprecedented times,'' Baldacci said during a State House news conference to announce the spending proposal, which now heads to the full Legislature for consideration. ''I think the budget reflects the times we're in. It's cautious. It shares the sacrifice.''

Baldacci said he tried to preserve critical government services, such as law enforcement, and protect social services for the elderly, children and disabled.

The approximately 3-inch-thick budget for the two-year period starting July 1 would eliminate 219 state positions, requiring 139 layoffs. That's in addition to the 94 positions eliminated in the current budget period, and would bring the total count of state workers to 13,700.

That would be the state's lowest employment level since 1983, said Baldacci, noting that the state has 1,000 fewer workers than it did when he took office in 2002.

Higher-education funding would be cut by 2.4 percent, while K-12 education would be funded near its present level.

Baldacci's budget does not include increases in sales or income taxes, but it would increase fees. The Department of Marine Resources would see a 15 percent across-the-board increase in all license fees. The cost of hunting and fishing licenses would increase $2.50 in the first year and another $1 in the second.

Fees to visit state parks would increase as well, although they would mostly target out-of-state adults.

Overall, those fees would add $4.1 million in revenue and minimize the number of positions that would have to be cut, said Roland ''Danny'' Martin, commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The budget includes a $108 million reduction in the Department of Health and Human Services' $3.28 billion budget. But Baldacci said he expects the state to receive $98 million in federal stimulus funds, which would result in a cut of just $20 million over the course of the two-year budget.

''While the $20 million doesn't sound like a lot of money in the context of our total budget, it's important we let people know that we recognize that all the needs that people wish were funded are not included in this budget,'' said DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the budget is in the state Department of Corrections. Baldacci proposes closing a 90-bed unit in the state prison in Warren, a 40-bed unit at the prison in Machiasport and a 94-unit bed at the Windham Correctional Center.

To save money, the budget calls for shipping 118 prisoners out of state. Baldacci said they would be prisoners with few or no family members in Maine who are serving long sentences. Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson said it costs the state $103 a day per inmate to keep them here; it would cost $66 to $70 to keep them out of state.

A similar proposal was rejected by lawmakers in 2007, and it could face a tough sell this time around.

''I'm still not convinced that sending people out of state is the right approach for the state of Maine,'' said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee. ''I've yet to be convinced that the cost savings is so significant that it makes it viable.''

The budget also includes temporary 10 percent reductions in tax rebate programs, including the residential property tax ''Circuit Breaker,'' the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement Program, the Maine Tree Growth Program and state-municipal revenue sharing.

Lawmakers from both parties said they will examine Baldacci's proposal.

''Spending cuts of this magnitude will require all stakeholders to commit to a new way of doing business, one that focuses on shared responsibility and shared sacrifice,'' Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, said in a prepared statement.

On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye of Perry and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jon Courtney of Springvale said in a joint statement that they are committed to working with Baldacci and the Democratic majority to craft a budget that ''reins in the unsustainable growth of state government and puts Maine in a position to more effectively foster the private-sector job creation necessary for a more prosperous future.''

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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