Friday, March 7, 2014
AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage issued a line-item veto of parts of the supplemental budget Saturday, telling lawmakers they need to be more courageous when cutting spending.
Gov. Paul LePage
LePage struck out individual items totaling $6.2 million in funding for cities and towns to support General Assistance.
"We need a profile in courage in Augusta," he wrote. "We must do what is right, without regards to the next election."
In his veto letter, LePage told lawmakers they did not make enough structural changes in General Assistance to gain his support. General Assistance is jointly funded by municipalities and the state, and is designed to help the poor with emergency needs. Most of the money goes for housing.
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, released a statement Saturday saying that cities and towns will face higher property taxes if the vetoes stand.
"Republicans and Democrats worked together to find a way to pay the bills, and address the concerns of our cities and towns," she said. "It's clear now that the governor is more interested in getting a pound of flesh than balancing the books. His priorities are out of touch with the needs of Maine people."
The House and Senate gave final approval to the budget Friday, and had not planned to return to Augusta until May 15 to consider more budget items. However, legislative leaders Saturday evening discussed whether to return to session this week to consider the vetoes.
Line-item vetoes require only a majority to override, and legislators have five days to vote on them.
The budget gained unanimous bipartisan support of the Appropriations Committee and passed the House and Senate with more than a two-thirds majority each.
LePage said last week that he would not sign the budget because it did not cut enough from the program, but he did not threaten a veto.
LePage argues that spending on General Assistance has continued to rise and it must be reformed to contain costs.
"General Assistance is a welfare program that, like most others, has gotten out of control," he wrote. "The amounts vetoed will put this issue back on the table and the Legislature must summon the political courage to fix the program structurally."
During House and Senate debates, Democrats argued that they did not support additional cuts to the program because they feared it would hurt people who need help and that it would shift additional cost to local property taxpayers. Instead of instituting LePage's cuts, Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee modified them, and set up a task force to come back with recommendations next year.
The governor sought to limit housing assistance to 90 days, but lawmakers extended that to nine months. LePage proposed cutting the state reimbursement rate for large cities from 90 percent to 50 percent; lawmakers reduced it to 85 percent.
The budget includes a $10 million increase in funding for the program, but the new limits on benefits -- including a 10 percent reduction in what individuals can receive -- will shave nearly $2 million from the cost.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, said last week that negotiations over the General Assistance cuts were the most difficult budget debates he's seen in the last four or five years. City mayors and lobbyists for low-income Mainers urged lawmakers to blunt the cuts.
LePage also struck $3.1 million from the budget that he says is not consistent with federal law. His original budget called for spending $10 million for forensic patients at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, but lawmakers reduced the amount. LePage's recommendation followed a letter from the federal government advising states that they can no longer bill Medicaid for some of those services.
State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org