AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to drop about 14,000 low-income parents from MaineCare health insurance is the latest sticking point in state budget negotiations.

Lawmakers worked late into the night Tuesday to try to close a shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services. Members of the Appropriations Committee expressed optimism that they were nearing final votes on $142 million in cuts.

But with philosophical differences between the parties, there was no easy resolution. Republicans say the state must reduce the number of people receiving MaineCare benefits to create a more affordable system, while Democrats say it’s wrong — and ultimately more expensive — to drop health insurance for thousands of people who need state assistance.

Over the next 17 months, the DHHS faces a $221 million shortfall, which is why LePage has proposed a series of changes that would eliminate MaineCare for 65,000 people.

Part of the proposal being considered is tighter income guidelines for a program that provides health insurance for parents of children who are on MaineCare.

LePage’s proposal would save $9.3 million and drop 14,000 parents from MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. It’s one of the changes he would like to see as part of his goal to reduce overall MaineCare enrollment.

In another area, Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee tentatively agreed to modify LePage’s proposal to eliminate medical coverage for childless adults who are 21 to 64 years old.

While LePage proposed dropping 18,600 from MaineCare, some committee members are supporting a proposal to maintain coverage for those who are enrolled now but save money through a continuing freeze on enrollment, attrition and other, still-unspecified money-saving measures.

LePage said Monday that he will veto any budget that does not eliminate coverage for childless adults. DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the governor also wants cuts to the insurance program for parents.

The governor’s threat of a veto, a slim Republican majority in the Legislature, tight financial deadlines and an upcoming election have fueled political tension this week over the $221 million budget deal.

On Tuesday, LePage suggested that Republicans pass the budget without any Democratic support.

Republican leaders in the Legislature clearly want to avoid that, and avoid a veto.

“Our hope is that we can get to a two-thirds” vote in favor of a budget the governor can live with, said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland.

Budgets can be passed with simple majority votes in the House and Senate. And Republicans could do that, as long as nearly all of them go along.

The Senate has 19 Republicans, 14 Democrats and one independent. The House has 77 Republicans, 72 Democrats and one independent.

The biggest problem is that that approach would take too long, said Nutting.

Without two-thirds support, a budget can’t take effect for at least 90 days. And if spending for health and human services isn’t reduced sooner, the state will begin running short of money in early April — about 60 days, he said.

“The reason we need to do a two-thirds (majority) budget is it becomes law immediately,” Nutting said.

That means the budget needs support from at least some Democrats.

It also, in effect, means the budget needs the governor’s support.

In theory, the Legislature doesn’t need LePage’s blessing. The same two-thirds in the House and Senate that pass the budget could override any veto.

But in reality, many Republican lawmakers would have a difficult time voting to override the Republican governor’s veto.

Even Democratic leaders who would like to see an override, including Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, know it’s a long shot.

“There is a two-thirds vote (to approve the budget), and there is overriding the governor’s veto. It’s two different things,” he said.

Underlying all of the debate is the fact that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to be seen as the reason Maine’s government cannot balance the budget. “It’s an election-cycle year,” said Hobbins.

While LePage won’t face another election until 2014, every legislator who plans to come back next year will have to win re-election in the fall. Republicans hope to keep their majorities, while Democrats want to win them back.

“Clearly, in an election year, both sides are looking forward to November,” Nutting said.

LePage spoke with television and radio outlets on Tuesday, but refused a request for an interview from MaineToday Media.

“I’m looking to develop a self-reliance type of state,” he told WCSH-TV (Channel 6). “They want the nanny state, and I’m going to fight that.”

House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said the Appropriations Committee was close to consensus Tuesday night.

“Despite the antics of the governor today and yesterday, the committee seems to be on track,” she said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]