Local legislators ready for next session

LEWISTON — Facing a double-whammy budget shortfall, state lawmakers from across Western Maine are starting to formulate their game plans as they prep for what could be a combative session of the Legislature.

State House photo

Rep. Peggy Rotundo

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Sen. Margaret Craven

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Sen. John Patrick

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Rep. Mike Beaulieu

State House photo

Rep. Jarrod Crockett

State House photo

Rep. Terry Hayes

The session, which begins officially on Dec. 5, will get fully under way in the new year.

"The big, glaring thing is, of course, the budget," said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. 

Required by the Maine Constitution to produce a balanced budget, lawmakers are facing a combined shortfall that is approaching $140 million. The first chunk of that — $35 million — must be solved by June 30, 2013.

Key to those deliberations will be Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.

Although the selection of committee chairs had not been decided, Rotundo is likely to be the House chairwoman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, now that Democrats have regained majority status. She served as the lead Democrat on the committee the past two years.

"As an Appropriations Committee person, my focus is always on the budget," Rotundo said. She said lagging sales-tax projections indicate a shortfall in the budget, but to her, they also indicate that Mainers are still reeling financially.

"It's clear to me that families in Maine are still struggling, are still suffering from the effects of the downturn in the economy," she said, "so my real focus has to do with putting money in the pockets of those struggling families in Maine."

The first step to making that happen is to "first make sure things don't get any worse for them," Rotundo said.

She said she anticipates Gov. Paul LePage will propose making some "drastic cuts" in his budget for the next two years. 

"I feel very strongly, in order to protect working families in Maine, we have to keep the safety net from unraveling any further than it already has," Rotundo said. "We also have to be very careful that we don't simply shift costs from the state to local communities and to local property taxpayers, as we have done in the last two years."

Craven and other lawmakers from the region said the state must move to pay down its debt to Maine hospitals. It's an issue that LePage also has said must be addressed. 

The total debt from unpaid Medicare expenses is approaching $450 million, Craven said. By starting to pay it down, local hospitals, some of the region's largest employers, would be on more solid financial ground, Craven said.

"We all have an interest in paying the hospitals," Craven said. If that doesn't help create jobs, it would at least preserve some of them, she said. "We are all talking about creating jobs, but we can't even save the jobs that are here."

Business tax breaks

Rotundo, Craven, Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, and Rep. Mike Beaulieu, R-Auburn, all seemed to agree that the state may be able to save or find some money by taking a hard look at tax breaks and other incentives that were put in place years ago to create jobs and bolster economic development.

Patrick said more than $1 billion in annual business tax breaks were put in place over the years to create jobs. He said it makes sense to him and to many on both sides of the aisle to see which of those are actually doing what they were intended to do and which amount to corporate welfare.

"What's in it for working men and women?" Patrick asked. "Should it all go directly to business or should it go to businesses with caveats for livable wages and health-care benefits?" Patrick said there's only so much cutting that can take place in a state budget before you have to look for new revenue.

"This is one where we can't just keep making cuts," he said. "We can't cut our way out. We have to take a look at everything and everything has got to be on the table."

Beaulieu said he expected there would be considerable time and debate spent trying to modify a bill passed last year that changed the laws that regulate health insurance in Maine.

The controversial PL 90, which created a high-risk insurance pool and established a new, $4 fee for anyone buying private health insurance to pay for it, was one of the things he heard the most about when campaigning for re-election. 

The Republican-backed measure was meant to lower insurance premiums, but older individuals in rural parts of the state continue to see their premiums skyrocket.

A report from the nonprofit Consumers for Affordable Health Care released in September showed 54 percent of individual policyholders in Maine saw premium increases, while 90 percent of small business policyholders saw rates go up.

Republicans who backed the measure have said there are parts of the law that haven't been fully implemented and it hasn't been given time to work.

Beaulieu said he didn't plan to author legislation on the measure, but it was on the radar screen and he was amenable to looking at it.

Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, said it was likely the law would be targeted for changes, but he didn't believe there would be any attempt to repeal it. 

State liquor contract

Crockett said news in August that the state could benefit to the tune of $41 million a year by renegotiating a contract with private business for the importation and distribution of hard liquor in Maine — once a state-run monopoly — would also be a top issue.

Crockett said there was little doubt the state would renegotiate terms that were more beneficial to the state, but that lawmakers would likely have varying ideas over how to spend that money.

He said both paying down the hospital debt and the state fully funding its responsibilities to public schools could emerge as possible uses for the money.

"How that all gets sliced up will certainly be one of the topics of debate," Crockett said.

He said he has a bill he wants to see advance this session that would create a "cooling-off" period that would prohibit outgoing state lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for one year.  

Maine's Legislature is regularly ranked among the worst in the country when it comes to ethics, and his bill would be aimed at changing that, he said. He noted it was meant to prevent corruption in government and the "revolving-door" effect of lawmakers joining the ranks of lobbyists the day after they leave office.

"Some people are going to have opposition to it, I'm sure, but I just don't see how we can continue this," Crockett said. Federal law requires a similar cooling-off period for members of the U.S. House and Senate, he said.

State Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, who is serving in her fourth and final term in the House, said she hopes to use her last two years to push her colleagues to use data generated by the Maine Development Foundation as they craft bills.

Hayes said the state helps pay for collecting the data, which look at economic factors county by county, but the data seldom are used in making policy decisions.

"I'm just dismayed at how little that data source is used by me and my colleagues in our policy deliberations and decision," Hayes said. "So in a broad base, sort of at a 30,000-foot level I have a personal goal of finding ways to encourage my colleagues to use that data."

Annual reports from the foundation detail 25 benchmarks and whether the state is moving forward in those areas, moving backward or staying even. 

"Collectively, they are used to gauge the quality of life in Maine, in our economy," Hayes said. "For two election cycles we've heard everybody pontificating about how important jobs are, so when we step back and look at which of those needles did we move and how, I'm disappointed because I think we end up ignoring some of the best data to help focus our policy decisions so that we can generate the outcomes we say we want."

Hayes also said she would like to revisit legislation proposed by former state Rep. Henry Joy, who was trying to shift the state's budget deliberations to the second half of the two-year terms Maine lawmakers serve. Doing this would allow new lawmakers a year to get up to speed on the legislative process, Hayes said.

Because of term limits, retirements and the ebb and flow of elections every two years, Maine has a bumper crop of new lawmakers, and that freshmen group — this year it's 60 new members in the House — has to grapple with the state budget.

"So, you've got more than a third of your legislative oversight staff that have no idea what a state budget looks like," Hayes said. After a year of experience, lawmakers have a better ability to scrutinize the budget proposals coming out of the governor's office, she said.

The second year of the legislative session also has more time for them to closely scrutinize those proposals and offer alternatives, because the number of other bills is limited in the second year of the legislative cycle, she said.

"So, you have better-informed legislative members, who have the time to pay attention to those details, and they have a sense of what those details are," Hayes said. "It's a structural change that can help change the outcomes."

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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Comments

JOHN PAINTER's picture

They'll need all the support

They'll need all the support they can get in the Legislature to understand and address a large number of factors influencing our state budget.

There's no one cause, that I can see to our state's problems, rather ,Maine has an unfortunate perfect storm mix of factors. As a population we're relatively unhealthy, and we're aging - fast and to make that matter more challenging we have more people at the poverty level up to 250% of FPL than virtually any other New England state. Add to that the cost of housing, heat, food and transportation and it's not surprising to me we have a disproportionate number of citizens on the edge - for them the "fiscal cliff" is already reality.

While I personally believe Maine could do more to be self sufficient, and less reliant on Federal programs at least in our care for the elderly and disabled, e.g. better creative utilization of our resources possibly developing a woodland trust similar to Alaska's http://www.mhtrust.org/index.cfm/About-Us/Trust-History which would by far create a more human legacy for the likes of Ms. Quimby and others interested in Maine's woodlands, and supposedly, people, it's unclear to me whether Maine as a whole feels enough on the edge of a cliff to become creative and compassionate. It's not just Maine's elected officials who need the support, it's really all of us.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Even us poor folk get hit........

I just got my notification, I'll be paying another eight bucks per month for Medicare. It may not seem like much, but if I were still working, it would equal a significant increase in my monthly health insurance payment. I guess every little bit helps.........

Bob Stone's picture

News Flash for Peggy

"Still" ? Apparently she missed it. Maine never recovered from the Frank-Dodd recession. Tax collections, especially income, have been off since the new budget year began back in July. The "makers" are not going to be able to support her "takers" for much longer.

There are 350,000 residents bouncing on her "safety net." More to come shortly after the Dems put a bullet in the head of a number of businesses. Patrick apparently hasn't got the fact that businesses employ people and are much more that golden geese for "rich" owners.

Oh well, Maine voted for these geniuses. Good luck.

PS... I am amazed that Rotundo, Craven and their cabal have loaded up the welfare rolls and then refuse to pay for their care. Common stiffs.

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

Another confirmation that Republicans just don't get it

"Frank-Dodd recession"; what a joke if it weren't so pathethic. Republican rule #1 - find a democrat any democrat you can blame for everything you've done that failed. Supply-side economics - failed so blame Frank and Dodd. If that doesn't work then find the last Democrat who was president during difficult economic times - Carter. But never take personal responsibility for anything.
The "makers" are the "takers". That's Senator Patrick's point. Tax breaks to business intended by the legislature to create jobs more often than not fall to the bottom line without creating any jobs and into the pockets of owners.Why should we focus on the few hundred people who cost the system a few millions by falsely claiming or misusing benefits when business owners may be costing us billions. Most often they are business people, providers generally, not beneficiaries.
One thing on which you can always count - a Republican just does not believe in facts.

Bob Stone's picture

Same old liberal talking points from Albrecht

1. Supply side economics is sound theory. We now are experiencing the Keynes way, and have piled up a $16 trillion national debt. Now Obama is looking for unlimited debt authority. He is trying to bankrupt the country.

2. The recession that we are still in was directly precipitated by careless home loan underwriting standards. Loans were made to people who couldn't hope to repay them. Barney Frank and Chris Dodd were supportive of the loosening of lending standards and had more to do with the recession we have not recovered from than anyone. Talk about refusing to accept responsibility!

3. Business equipment tax rebates are triggered when a business acquires business equipment. How can the rebate "fall to the bottom line" if it is a reimbursement for a prior expense? I know that "business owners" are evil in the eye of the communist but they do employ people. Lots of people. Maybe we should all work for the government?

4. Don't tell me about facts. I'll shred your kool-aid points with them.

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

OK, let's change tactics even though I know it won't work

1. Name one period when supply side economics worked. Any. We are experencing the Keynesian way. And we can document when it worked throughout the world and in the US. The $16 trillion in debt was created by Republicans generally following supply side economics. The programs o the Democratic Congresses and President have hardly added to th debt at all. Right?
Obama is not looking for unlimited debt authority; he's looking for a way to prevent Congressional dysfunction from wrecking the counry. Another two or three debt ceiling debates and the country will have a credit rating south of Greece. But the Norquist plan is a plan to bankrupt the country and the vast majority of Republicas have signed on to it. Is that not correct? We will you folks admit you are wrong. You do need to remember BUSH II. That wasn't 8 years of success. o, debt, unnecessary wars, irresponsibile tax cuts, recession, unemployment. You aren't too old to remember.
2. Your dream world is showing. The recession was caused be the creation of securities whose value could not be determined and the uncertainty that created in financial markets. The careless home loans undewriting standards (subprime mortgages and the securitization of the same) were invented by Countrywide financial in 2000 and the Bush Administration met and decided that they did not have to be regulated. Dodd and Frank approved and passed legislation that eliminated redlining. Their wish and I'm certain it was real to stimulate home ownership and the responsibility it engenders in people if they had pssed legislation that certained securities back by subprime loans. But they didn't. It had nothing to do with the recession or subprime mortgages. Nor did Fannie May or Freddie Mac which were prohibited by the law until 2007 from engaging is such practices. The Bush Administration sponsored legislation changing that and the two underwrote about 3% of the bad loans and purchased trillions of dollars of the bad securities under that new legislation. They were the victims not the cause of the recession.
3. Business equipment tax rebates are just one small part of corporate welfare. If the rebates are not granted, are you saying corporate profits would increase? No, the rebates increase profits without creating jobs like most corporate welfare. Now if a program proves successful - it creates permanent jobs, higher paying jobs. Then I'm all for it.
4. Please do. I've been asking for facts for about what 15 years on these blogs and I have seen very few from your side so far.

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