By Steve Mistler
Advocacy groups for the elderly, the mentally ill, substance abusers and the poor are bracing for the impact of Gov. Paul LePage's order to cut $35.5 million in state spending to balance Maine's budget.
While the full effects aren't entirely clear, groups anticipate reductions in adoption and foster care services and elder care, which account for a significant part of the $13.4 million reduction the order seeks in the Department of Health and Human Services.
"With the vast majority of the cuts in human services, there is going to be harm done if those cuts are implemented, simply because DHHS has seen cut after cut after cut," said Sara Gagne-Holmes of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group of low-income Mainers. "What's left are services that are vital to people."
It will be up to the Legislature to propose alternatives to the order issued Thursday by LePage. Those may emerge next week, when the Appropriations Committee meets to dig out the details of the governor's curtailment package.
DHHS officials said Friday that the ordered cuts are strategic and designed to do the least harm.
"That's not to say that these cuts won't affect people," said Ricker Hamilton, director of the department's Aging & Disability Services office. "They will be affected. They always are."
Hamilton's office is confronting a total reduction of $1.4 million, including a significant subsidy cut to the state's 23 elder-care providers.
Jim Martin, associate director of finance for Aging & Disability Services, said the office has been contacting providers to determine the best way to absorb the funding reduction. Martin said the agency also hopes to avoid cutting services that receive matching federal dollars.
The DHHS curtailment also includes a $1.5 million cut for the Bureau of Mental Health, which provides funding for mental health service providers and substance abuse organizations.
The full effect of the cut is not yet clear, but it already has drawn criticism because it follows statements by several lawmakers that mental health is key to comprehensively addressing gun violence -- a clarion call prompted by the mass shootings Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn.
The curtailment, designed to offset a revenue shortfall projected in November, hits nearly every state agency, but public schools and human services will share the brunt of it, largely because the two account for roughly 70 percent of the state's two-year budget.
LePage administration officials emphasized that the $12.6 million cut in state aid to schools may not hit for several months. But the impact on human services could be more immediate and long-lasting unless legislators find alternatives to keep the budget balanced.
Democratic lawmakers have already questioned the cuts to DHHS, which the governor has targeted to offset past budget shortfalls.
LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor also is concerned about some of the cuts, including a $3.3 million reduction in state-funded foster care and adoption assistance.
Therese Cahill-Low, director of Child and Family Services, said the state pays about $10 million a year to families who adopt children. The payments come in the form of a daily subsidy of $26.25 for each adopted child until the child turns 18.
Cahill-Low said the curtailment order would cut the daily payment in half for the final three months of the fiscal year ending June 30.
The governor's order proposes several other programmatic reductions in DHHS. It also leaves a total of 307 positions vacant until the end of the fiscal year.
Bonnie Smith, deputy commissioner for programs, said 247 of the positions are front-line jobs, such as caseworkers and benefit eligibility specialists. The other 60 are supervisory jobs.
Other departments are relying on savings from staffing vacancies to cover the spending reduction, including the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, Maine Revenue Services and the Department of Corrections.
Jody Breton, associate commissioner of corrections, said the jobs include guards, administrators and other staffers at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
Breton said the prison has had difficulty finding applicants for the prison jobs. She said the vacancies were carefully considered.
"We have monthly meetings with all of our facilities administrators because we're watching safety, too," she said. "Assaults on other inmates, assaults on staff ... We have not seen an increase. We are very safety-conscious. (Commissioner Joseph Ponte) is very much about the data, and he let the data drive the decisions."
Another $515,428 in cuts will come from the state's two juvenile corrections facilities. Breton said the facilities are under capacity and the juvenile population is either flat or declining.
The curtailment order also cuts $2.5 million from the University of Maine System. More than half of the system's budget is dedicated to the Orono campus.
Ryan Low, director of governmental affairs for the University of Maine, said administrators anticipated the curtailment order and began identifying savings weeks ago. Low said he doesn't anticipate adverse effects from the cuts.
The reductions will also be in a supplemental budget that LePage will propose Jan. 11. That will challenge the Democratic majority in the Legislature, which will have to propose different cuts if it doesn't accept LePage's.
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: