AUGUSTA — State lawmakers said Thursday that they will likely be faced with eliminating whole programs or agencies to fill a $30 million hole in the current budget.
Retiring state comptroller Edward Karass told the Appropriations Committee further reorganizations
would not be the answer to the budget challenges.
going to have to make some cuts," he said. "It's not an easy thing to do and it's going to cause a
lot of pain. You have to be futurists and visionaries and you have to
look at it as leaving the state better off."
The committee is charged with finding structural savings — permanent cuts rather than one-time fixes — in the $5.8 billion, two-year budget. Lawmakers likely will have to make tens of millions in additional cuts next year, as monthly revenue collections continue to come in under projections.
"We've looked at everything and it's just scraped to the bone," said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, a member of the committee. "We're going to have to eliminate entire programs or agencies."
At the end of the second day of budget briefings, committee chairs Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, told colleagues they were expected to go over a list of state programs not federally mandated or legally required and decide which they would be willing to cut.
"We can easily screen out those programs, like debt service and retirement payments, that we have no intention of touching," said Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, the committee's top House Republican.
Millett said the committee plans to reconvene on Sept. 2, so members from each party can see which programs each is willing to consider cutting.
"The goal is getting us from the balcony down to the ball field," Millett said.
The committee is also scheduled to meet Sept. 23 and 24, when the actual details for significant policy changes are expected to be reviewed, Cain said.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who also serves on the budget-writing committee, said the eventual cuts would affect many Mainers.
"We've nickle and dimed these programs almost to death and that's why everyone is saying we can't continue down that path because there's nothing left; at some point you have to say, we have to cut programs that we can't afford anymore," she said, adding that about half of the overall budget consists of education funding and another third funds health and human services programs.
"As the state cuts back, those needs that people have remain," she said. "Sometimes you end up cost-shifting back to the local government with the state cuts."
Members are also working on a bipartisan "matrix" for evaluating programs to help diffuse political liability from suggesting certain cuts. Based on a suggestion from Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, the system would allow lawmakers to identify certain general qualities they all agree are either desirable, such as affordability, or undesirable, such as redundency, and evaluate state programs in those terms.
"It is politically difficult to come out and say, 'Well, I want to cut this or cut that," because nobody wants to cut anything," Craven said. "(The matrix) will prevent a lot of finger-pointing and I think that was a great idea."