May 20, 2012

The legislative session in hindsight

Promised cuts to MaineCare arrived, and while some call them too deep, others say it's just the beginning.

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - When Republican lawmakers took office with majorities in both chambers nearly two years ago, they pledged to cut state spending and, in particular, the state's Medicaid program.

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MaineToday Media asked several State House regulars to weigh in on significant legislation tackled by the 125th Maine Legislature. As you might imagine, a “good” bill to the Maine State Chamber of Commerce may be listed as a “bad” bill by the Maine State Employees Association. Good or bad, here are some highlights of significant legislation enacted over the past two years:

The mineral mining law, which requires the Department of Environmental Protection to update mining regulations, is cited as good by the chamber, but bad by environmentalists. Irving Corp. asked lawmakers to approve the bill so it can open a new mine in Aroostook County. The DEP has 18 months to write new rules.

Changes to workers compensation were cited as good by the chamber, but bad by the state employees union. The change places a 10-year cap on benefits for many injured workers.

A 30 percent cut to municipal revenue sharing made the Maine Municipal Association list of bad bills, but the group applauds efforts to let municipalities decide more issues, such as setting their own local fireworks policies.

A bill to change the governance of the Maine State Housing Authority to make the director responsible to the board, and a bill to require forfeiture of public benefits for convicted felons, make the Senate Republicans’ list of good bills.

Education bills that require students to show they know the material before getting a diploma, a teacher evaluation system and anti-bullying legislation are positive steps, say House Democrats. On the negative side, they point to the removal of collective bargaining rights for some child care workers and egg farm laborers.

Environmentalists cite new rules to phase out the toxic chemical bisphenol-A from many consumer products as a positive step. They say the dismantling of the State Planning Office was a bad move.

A measure to reduce fraud in the unemployment insurance system and a standardized definition of “independent contractor” made the list of good bills compiled by the chamber.

— Susan Cover

At the time there were 361,000 Mainers on MaineCare, the state's version of Medicaid. Today, there are 343,000, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And while some of that drop is due to attrition and other factors, much of it is because of new limits imposed on the program.

After all the cuts take effect -- some require federal permission -- 38,000 people in Maine will be dropped from Medicaid health care coverage and an additional 12,000 will lose some of their coverage, according to the Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal office as well as estimates from social service advocates.

To some, the cuts amount to nibbling around the edges of a very large program. To others, the cuts go too deep already.

"We'd like to see a much more aggressive pace in getting back to the national norms," said Lance Dutson, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

For the past few years, the policy center has pushed lawmakers to trim the system, pointing to statistics that show Maine has the third highest percentage of its population on Medicaid. Gov. Paul LePage has urged lawmakers to be more aggressive, too, chiding them for modifying his proposals and saying he will bring back rejected cuts next year.

Over the past two years, the Republican-led Legislature has voted to eliminate Medicaid for 19- and 20-year-olds; frozen health insurance for childless adults, which prevents any new enrollees from getting the benefit; changed the income levels for parents of children on MaineCare so fewer parents qualify; cut funding to programs that help senior citizens pay for prescription drugs; and cut funding for programs such as Head Start.

Overall, state and federal spending on MaineCare has dropped from $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2010 to $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2012, according to DHHS.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said when he campaigned two years ago, he heard from voters that they wanted the Legislature to focus on jobs.

"None of them said go cut 50,000 people off basic health care," he said. "I don't think anyone thought it was a top priority."

When he campaigns this year, Alfond said, he and other Democrats will talk to voters about the cuts.

And while much of the attention has focused on cuts, the budget passed last week by Republicans added about $500,000 to a program to help reduce the waiting list for people with intellectual disabilities or autism. Republicans say that's part of their effort to refocus the program to help those they consider to be truly in need, and get away from coverage for healthy adults.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said that while MaineCare supporters packed the hallways of the State House to protest the cuts, when he leaves the building, he hears a different story from average voters.

"When I go to the grocery store, I see people walking up to thank us for getting Maine back to the national mainstream," he said. "Most people understood when you had the third highest percentage of the population on MaineCare in the country, that's not sustainable."

Meanwhile, some question whether the budget passed last week is even balanced. The state needs the federal government to grant three waivers in order to cut certain programs, and some advocates think it's unlikely the state will get the permission it needs to scale back coverage.

Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice, said everyone will be touched by the cuts.

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