Politics

February 21, 2013

Lawmakers send LePage $153 million spending bill

The Legislature passes the bill with two-thirds support, enough to override a LePage veto.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The Legislature on Thursday sent Gov. Paul LePage a $153 million spending bill designed to close a shortfall in the state's current two-year budget.

The Legislature passed the bill with two-thirds support, a margin strong enough to be enacted as an emergency measure and if necessary, override a LePage veto. The governor has not indicated whether he will support the supplemental budget, which contains significant differences from his original proposal to lawmakers.

Democrats and Republicans say they hope the strong bipartisan support will prompt LePage to sign the budget.

The House approved it 129-14. The Senate passed it 35-0.

The supplemental budget was made necessary primarily because of a $118 million funding gap at the Department of Health and Human Services, which overran projected costs for MaineCare, Maine's Medicaid program, by nearly $88 million.

The Legislature endorsed several of the governor's spending cuts, but negotiated a deal to preserve the state-funded program that provides drugs for the elderly.

The committee also spurned LePage's proposal to cap General Assistance payments to municipalities at $10.1 million, a proposal that could have forced Portland and other large communities to come up with funds to keep the welfare program going this spring.

The budget approved Thursday preserves the governor's proposal to cut $12.6 million in education funding to school districts this year and delay another $18.5 million in education aid until next year.

Democrats had hoped to include charter schools in the education cuts after LePage exempted the state's two operating charter schools from cuts in his proposal. While just $5,000 was at stake, the issue became a point of contention between the two parties.

Democrats later negotiated a deal that excluded the charter schools from the cuts.

Democrats on Thursday offered floor amendments to raise taxes on high-income earners as a way to close the shortfall, but the proposals were defeated.

The budget shortfall was driven by overruns in the state's Medicaid program. More than $33 million was due to savings initiatives that were passed by the previous Legislature but never realized, including cuts in Medicaid spending that were recently rejected by the federal government.

Lamakers reduced the size of proposed cuts to substance-abuse treatment and mental health service providers and rejected a $5 million reduction in reimbursement rates for rural hospitals and outpatient services. The committee also restored half of the $1.4 million proposed cut in state-funded subsidies for adoptions.

The governor has 10 days to sign the budget before it goes into effect without his signature. However, the budget contains savings that begin March 1, so a signature later than that would result in decreased savings.

The vote Thursday sets the stage for the next budget battle over the governor's proposed $6.2 billion budget for the next two fiscal years.

That controversial document would suspend more than $200 million in municipal aid for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and contains other divisive measures designed to protect a $400 million tax cut package passed by the Legislature in 2011.

"These significant cuts to our local schools and mental health support system (passed Thursday) strengthen our resolve to support a more balanced approach to our next two-year budget," House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a statement. "We must support a budget that invests in our economy and our middle class, not one that shifts costs."

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the next budget would likely be more difficult, but that he hoped the supplemental spending plan would set the stage for a bipartisan effort.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

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