March 3, 2010

Pleas follow lawmakers into budget arena

SUSAN M

— 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.''

''The biggest thing is, this is a process,'' she said. ''There are no final decisions.''

Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, an Appropriations Committee member, said he's encouraged to hear that some health care alliances are forming to come up with ideas for mitigating the cuts.

He's open to hearing from fellow legislators and outsiders to help find a way to build a better budget. But he's also concerned that because there's so much opposition, it will be hard to make changes.

''It's going to be difficult to find consensus with all the moving parts,'' he said.

Another moving part is state revenues.

Revenues were up by $30 million in December, according to preliminary numbers. About half of that is a timing issue, Cain said, but the other is actual revenue. She said the committee will hear more about that this week and cautioned it is still waiting to see if the state economy has hit bottom.

And there could be additional federal money for human services, said Baldacci's deputy chief of staff, David Farmer. The $35 million placeholder already in the budget was a conservative estimate and could be changed if Congress passes health care reform legislation.

Cain, now in her sixth year as a legislator, said this budget process feels different because these cuts come on top of other reductions approved in previous years.

''In HHS, we really can't just think about the individual who is the recipient, but rather the ripple effect that taking something away has on the community,'' she said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com

 

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