March 12, 2010

Parties seek more accord on spending

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Both Democratic and Republican leaders hope the cooperative spirit that's existed between the two parties this session continues as work on the budget progresses.

Only a week into four weeks of public hearings, lawmakers are still gathering information on Democratic Gov. John Baldacci's $6.1 billion budget proposal. It's too early yet to gauge where Democrats and Republicans might differ -- or to what extent.

But Democratic leaders in the majority party want to get the budget passed on time and with a two-thirds vote that would require Republican support. They say the work done last month to swiftly pass an emergency supplemental budget has set the stage for cooperation between the two parties.

Republicans note that Baldacci's budget for the two-year period starting July 1 attempts to spread the pain of cuts by slicing most agencies and departments. A more strategic approach may be appropriate, they say, one that identifies program priorities by increasing funding for some programs while possibly eliminating others entirely.

The Legislature's Appropriations Committee began public hearings on the budget last week. It's still too early to clearly identify negotiating points, said state Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, a member of the committee.

''There are a lot of moving parts at this point,'' he said.

In four weeks' time, the state will have an update of its revenue trends; Maine should know how much federal money to expect from a stimulus package, and arguments for and against the budget will have been heard.

And the Legislature's various policy committees will meet, go over the budget line by line and either support the governor's plan or come up with their own proposals for various departments to bring back before the committee.

''The more bipartisan their work is, the easier it is to get to a bipartisan budget,'' said state House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, of the policy committees' work.

State Senate Majority Leader Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, said Democrats are focusing on core party principles like maintaining social programs during these tough economic times.

What's remarkable is the breadth of areas where Republicans and Democrats agree, said state Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry. There's a broad agreement that there should be a viable safety net for the state's most vulnerable residents, for instance. But there are differences between parties in the definition of that safety net, Raye said.

Pingree said she expected some partisan debate on health care spending, as well as on cuts to the business equipment tax reimbursement program. There are a number of contentious topics in the budget proposal, she said.

''Some will be partisan, some won't -- but they'll all be hot spots.''

State Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, listed a range of ''hot-button issues'' not specifically tied to one party or the other. They include prison unit closings; proposals to move prisoners out of state; education funding; the future of the Dirigo health insurance program; local revenue sharing, health care spending and others.

Millett and Rosen stressed a need to look at what government provides, and plan long-range for its operations.

''We have had a chronic imbalance for years now between the cost of operating state government and the revenue the citizens and economy of Maine can generate,'' said Rosen.

Instead of making some cuts in virtually every program, lawmakers should increase spending on programs they deem important and look hard at programs that perhaps the state shouldn't offer anymore, said Rosen.

Eliminating programs and setting priorities can be politically difficult, he said, ''but we're in extraordinary circumstances.''

One goal that has emerged in this session is a desire by leaders of both parties to pass the budget with a two-thirds majority -- meaning it has broad support from both parties, rather than a simple majority of Democrats.

Passing a simple majority budget ahead of an end-of-April deadline is a method that has been used in years past, but it doesn't engender good will between the parties.

''We'll have to hammer this thing out, and both sides will have to give -- which means it requires the input and cooperation of both parties,'' said state Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Politically, Diamond said, Democrats don't want to push a budget through with a simple majority and no Republican votes. This is a tough budget, said Diamond, with a lot of cuts. Everyone should shoulder the responsibility of an unpopular budget, he said.

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

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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