AUGUSTA — On an 8-4 party-line vote, the Legislature's Appropriations Committee on Thursday passed a supplemental budget for the Department of Health and Human Services that would close an estimated $83 million budget shortfall.
Members of the Legislature's Republican majority said the measure would make what they consider "structural changes" to the DHHS budget. It also would remove about 7,000 19- and 20-year-olds from MaineCare, the state's low-income health insurance program.
The spending plan reduces the state's share of funding for Head Start programs by $2 million. It changes income guidelines for the state's senior prescription drug program by pushing out about 1,500 people.
It also introduces a new income-tax break for pensioners and creates sales-tax exemptions for commercial greenhouse and forestry purchases beginning in 2014.
It keeps a Republican promise to restore about $5 million in funding for Maine's largest cities' General Assistance programs. General Assistance is a city program that helps the needy with cash grants for specific purposes, including emergency fuel for heat or temporary rent.
The full Legislature is expected to vote on the budget proposal Tuesday, May 15, when it reconvenes in special session to fix the DHHS budget.
All Democrats on the Appropriations Committee voted against the cuts, which Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said were "extreme and irresponsible."
Rotundo, the lead House Democrat on the committee, said the reduction in eligibility for health and welfare programs for both the young and the old would hurt Maine's vulnerable residents.
She said she couldn't accept a proposal that cuts taxes for some while eliminating critical health care services for others.
“The Republicans are making dangerous cuts that will harm seniors, children and people with disabilities while passing more unfunded tax cuts,” Rotundo said.
Other Democratic lawmakers on the panel said the state's revenue forecast was on an uptick and suggested that growing revenue projections could offset the need to eliminate state benefits for the populations outlined under the Republican plan.
Democrats said their plan also would pick up the effort to stop fraud, especially by health care providers.
Panel member Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said the GOP argument that the measure was about closing an emergency shortfall in the department's budget "lost all credibility" with the proposed tax breaks added.
“We’d all like to have more money in our pockets," Martin said, "but none of us would want to take it from our grandmother’s purse or our children’s piggy banks.”
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said a proposal her caucus was presenting would be about finding savings by running DHHS more efficiently. The Democrats' proposal included depending on revenue forecasts that show the state gaining revenue over the next few years. It also did not end eligibility for any people on state programs.
Democrats say the cuts would affect 24,000 Mainers.
"We took an approach that was about running the department better and delivering services better to those who need them most, and not measuring our success by how many people get thrown off from programs," Hill said, just before the committee voted to approve the Republican proposal and reject the Democrats minority report.
Republicans said they offered a plan that fixed the budget problem in a way that meant ongoing savings in the years to come and in a way that protects the state's most poor and most vulnerable, including children, the elderly and those with disabilities.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said continued MaineCare growth in the state's DHHS budget was unsustainable. They said efforts by Democrats to expand the program to include more and more people were jeopardizing it for those who truly needed it.
"MaineCare has grown from 12.4 percent of the state budget in 1998 to 21 percent of the state budget now," Raye said.
While recent state revenue forecasts show the state could receive an additional $49 million from taxes this fiscal year, Republicans were resisting using too much of that money to help plug the gap because, they said, it wouldn't solve the long-term problem of unsustainable growth in the MaineCare program.
"This Legislature will not repeat the mistakes of the past by using a one-time windfall to put a Band-Aid over our broken system, in the hopes that the problem will go away," Nutting said.
The GOP proposal includes about $6.7 million in newly forecast revenue.
Nutting said there were no discussions with Democrats about what the Legislature would do if LePage again used his veto pen on specific provisions in the proposal, as he did in April.
Adrienne Bennett, press secretary for LePage, said that because the Republican proposal provides funding to help pay down the state's debt to hospitals and achieves ongoing savings in DHHS, the governor was encouraged.
"This proposal moves us well toward what has long been part of the governor's goals: for the state to spend wisely and for us to pay our bills," Bennett said.
She said the Republican plan matches LePage's promise to protect services for the state's most vulnerable and does so in a responsible manner.
If the final bill that comes out of the Legislature next week looks like the GOP proposal, it is unlikely the governor will veto any part of it, Bennett said.
She said the governor did not necessarily like the restoration of General Assistance funding for cities, but it was a compromise he could accept.
LePage wants to reform a complicated General Assistance formula that helps Maine's larger cities — which spend the most on General Assistance — more than smaller municipalities. He wants state funding to be even for all but also has said cities must control their spending on local welfare programs.
Bennett said reducing the level of state spending for General Assistance was still a goal for the administration and that she expected it to come up again when the Legislature convenes in January 2013.