April 19, 2012

Committee's budget success faces new test

Democrats say Republicans allowed LePage to break their last deal, so the next talks may be contentious.

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

AUGUSTA - Six times in the past year and a half, Republicans and Democrats on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee have reached unanimous agreements on state budgets. Starting next week, new budget negotiations will test that streak.

"I think we can find common ground," said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, Senate chairman of the committee. "Whether we can (agree) on the entire amount, I don't know."

The eight Republicans and five Democrats on the committee have worked well together, crafting a $6 billion, two-year state budget that won unanimous approval last year, and five other budgets designed to fill gaps.

But this week, Democrats are responding harshly to the Republican majority's decision not to call lawmakers back into session to consider line-item vetoes by Gov. Paul LePage, including more than $5 million for General Assistance, a program that helps the poor with emergency needs.

"As lead Democratic negotiator, I feel betrayed," said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. "There's been a breach of trust. What's the point of negotiating an agreement if that agreement is going to be broken?"

Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, put out a news release Tuesday night accusing Republicans of being flip-floppers and showing "a fundamental lack of courage" in letting LePage's vetoes stand.

On Wednesday, the Democrats even filed a Freedom of Access Act request for the list of Republican lawmakers who did not want to come back from the current recess to consider the vetoes.

Rosen said it didn't make sense to call legislators back because the Appropriations Committee can deal with the issue in its next negotiations. And he feared what the governor might do if the Legislature voted to override the line-item vetoes.

"The governor made it clear, if we did override, he would veto the entire budget," Rosen said.

On Saturday, a day after the House and Senate approved a supplemental budget for the next 15 months with more than two-thirds support, LePage vetoed the $5 million for General Assistance, which is funded by the state and municipalities, and Medicaid funding for institutional care.

He chastised lawmakers for not making the kinds of structural changes he wants and sent the issue back to the Legislature.

Specifically, LePage wants funding for emergency housing limited to three months. Lawmakers approved a nine-month limit and set up a study commission to make recommendations and establish a pilot project, two things LePage characterized as "difficult to understand and impossible to predict."

Legislators have five days to act on line-item vetoes. Republican leaders asked their members if they wanted to come back into session, and most said no.

The Appropriations Committee will return next week to begin work on a budget to close a funding gap in the Department of Health and Human Services. The size of the gap is uncertain, as lawmakers wait for new figures from the DHHS and revenue forecasters.

On the table is the elimination of funding for the Drugs for the Elderly program, cuts to early-childhood education, and elimination of the Medicare Savings Program, which also helps senior citizens pay for prescription drugs.

Those proposals, and the prospect of new negotiations over General Assistance, make a tough budget even tougher, Rotundo said. Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said it's unclear to her what the committee needs to do next.

"Will we ever please the governor short of zeroing out (General Assistance)?" Hill said. "There's a lot of ways for us as a committee to find money. What difference will it make with the governor seeing it one way -- which is his way?"

The Legislature will be back in session May 15 to consider the budget.

LePage said Wednesday that he's not optimistic the Legislature will make the kinds of changes he's seeking.

"Never say die," he said after a bill signing at the Blaine House. "But I don't know how confident I am. I just know one thing. If they don't, it's at the peril of the state of Maine. The state of Maine will suffer if they don't make some structural changes in this government."

LePage has argued that spending for General Assistance has grown significantly over the past few years, from $6.7 million in 2008 to $14.3 million projected for 2013.

Supporters of the program, which is described as a last resort that helps mostly with housing, say the state needs to continue to fund its share. The Maine Municipal Association worries that cuts will shift costs to cities and towns, and the shift will drive up property taxes.

Maine Equal Justice Partners said the growth in the program since 2008 is a result of the recession, not an out-of-control welfare system.

"The program is a program of last resort," said Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners. "The people who participate in the GA program are desperate to stay in their homes."

Rotundo and Rosen say they hope that Democrats and Republicans will continue to work together. Rosen said he's not sure how many changes will have to be made to the compromise already reached by lawmakers.

"I think the position that was negotiated regarding GA ... remains the position of the committee members and the Legislature at this point," he said. "I'm not sure I anticipate significant modifications to that."

Rotundo said Democrats will stay at the bargaining table to fight "dangerous and irresponsible" budget cuts -- the Drugs for the Elderly program is one -- proposed by LePage.

"We're concerned about protecting people who need that protection," she said.

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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