April 10, 2012

Committee OKs general-assistance changes, $38M budget

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

The Appropriations Committee voted just before midnight to approve an amended version of Gov. Paul LePage's $38 million supplemental budget.

The committee made significant changes to the governor's proposal to cut General Assistance funding for cities and towns.

It also rejected three LePage tax-cut ideas, including a proposal to reduce the tax on pensions, another that would have exempted active-duty military pay from the state-income tax, and a sales tax refund for commercial wood harvesters.

Senate Chairman Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said the committee ran out of time to give thorough consideration to the tax cuts. He said the budget does allocate more money for court security, the computer crimes lab and indigent legal services.

While the governor had proposed significant cuts to General Assistance, the committee blunted the impact.

The language approved by the committee calls for a 10 percent cut, restrictions on housing assistance, a reduction in the reimbursement rate for large cities from 90 percent to 85 percent, and a work group to come back with more recommendations next year.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the changes put in place by the Appropriations Committee aren't the kind of structural changes needed to fix state government.

"We have a forward thinking governor who's looking down the road and we have legislators who are kicking the can down the road," she said. "This is a Band-Aid on a wound that is in need of stitches."

She said the governor, who is in New York today for an economic panel discussion, will be briefed on the budget Wednesday.

House Chairman Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, said the negotiations over General Assistance were the most difficult he's seen in the last four or five years. Some Republicans on the committee said the approved cuts don't go far enough, while Democrats expressed concern that they went too far.

LePage had proposed reducing the reimbursement rate from 90 percent to 50 percent, which prompted big city mayors to form a coalition to protest the cut.

The budget creates the Office of Policy and Management, which will replace the State Planning Office. The new office will have subpoena power, but it must be approved by a court before it's issued.

Last week, the committee rejected proposed cuts to Maine Public Broadcasting Network and the higher education system. The budget will go to the House for consideration later this week.

The committee will continue work into May on cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services and other budget items.

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