March 3, 2010

Pleas follow lawmakers into budget arena


— By . COVER

Hand out photo of Representative Lisa Miller (D-Somerville)

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Budget deliberations will turn from mass public demonstrations to line-by-line detail this week as legislative committees focus on the $438 million proposal to balance the state budget.

Last week, hundreds of people packed the State House and provided often emotional testimony on the anticipated impact of the cuts, particularly in the area of human services.

Now that the public hearing process is over, each legislative committee will parse the details in work sessions and report their recommendations back to the Appropriations Committee.

''We will absolutely be pushing back in some key areas,'' said Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee. ''We're already on record as opposing a lot of these things.''

Gov. John Baldacci released his supplemental budget last month, which is necessary because of lagging state revenues. If the numbers hold, the two-year budget will go from $5.8 billion to $5.5 billion.

Considered another way, the budget for fiscal year 2011 will be roughly the same amount as it was in 2004.

The proposal makes deep cuts to the two largest portions of the state budget -- health and human services and education -- and reduces funding for municipalities.

It proposes three additional unpaid days off for state workers and the elimination of 44 positions, 15 of which are filled. The budget counts on $35 million in additional funding from the federal government and proposes to consolidate some functions of the state's four natural resource agencies to produce $1.25 million in savings.

Mayors, educators and people who are disabled or mentally ill told the Appropriations Committee that they can't absorb the cuts. Many groups -- including the Maine Municipal Association, Maine State Employees Association, school superintendents and others -- encouraged lawmakers to consider raising taxes as an alternative.

This route has been a tough sell under this administration. Baldacci has supported tax increases on tobacco and alcohol, the latter of which was rejected by voters in 2008, but he has never raised a broad-based tax as a budget balancer.

This year, Baldacci has said he won't raise taxes and will veto anything that proposes a tax increase. Yet municipal officials have argued the budget as proposed will force them to raise property taxes.

And lawmakers heard that message.

''Let's call it what it is,'' said Rep. Lisa Miller, D-Somerville. ''There are taxes in this budget.''

Miller, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said she was struck by the testimony of municipal officials and those who need state human services. She said she agrees with many who said some of the cuts will end up costing the state more in the long run.

And when it comes to education, she called the hours of testimony from educators ''depressing'' for those who believe schools and universities are ''building blocks for the future.''

''Your overall impression is there are no good choices,'' she said. ''There are no secret pots we can finally drain.''

Legislative committees will have up to two weeks to conduct their own deliberations before being required to report back to Appropriations, said Appropriations House Chairwoman Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono.

And one thing is for sure: The budget will not look the same when the Legislature concludes deliberations.

Cain said she anticipates that the proportion of cuts will remain roughly the same, with health and human services and education taking the biggest hits. And they've asked all committees to recommend other ways to fund cuts if they don't like what's being proposed.

That may include tax increases.

Cain said as far as she's concerned ''everything is on the table.''

(Continued on page 2)

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