Lawmakers get closer look at governor’s spending cuts

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AUGUSTA — State budget-writers got a deeper look Thursday at the impact of $35.5 million in short-term cuts on the lives of thousands of Mainers.

For example, the State of Maine, the training ship for Maine Maritime Academy, may be left adrift longer, the academy’s chief financial officer told the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

The committee also was told that some of the cuts made by Gov. Paul LePage in a process known as curtailment would have the unintended impact of burdening local governments and hospitals and other public service agencies.

“If in fact we are talking about access to services for people with addiction, without the service they are going to do whatever they need to do to maintain their addiction,” said Guy Cousins, director of the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. He was responding to a question from Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor.

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“We know how that impacts different people, whether it’s about falsely obtaining medication, whether it might be nonmedical use of prescription medication,” Cousins said. “We are talking about crime to be able to support access to that substance. It will come out in public health because people will be using drugs in an unsafe way to maintain that addiction.”

Cousins, outlining how a $360,000 reduction would affect substance-abuse treatment in Maine, said public health, public safety, child welfare and medical costs would be affected, and treatment costs would shift to those areas.

While almost every state agency was asked to shoulder a portion of the spending cuts proportionately, agencies with larger budgets are seeing larger impacts. The spending reductions are limited to programs financed by the General Fund.

Another program that would be affected over the short term is one that subsidizes families that adopt children with special needs from state custody.  The curtailment order would trim about $1.4 million from the $11 million program and affect about 1,250 children in 935 families.

The funding is negotiated with families based on the needs of the child, with 52 percent of the families in the state program receiving the maximum amount of $26.25 per day. Under the curtailment order, those families will receive 50 percent less for the last quarter of the fiscal year ending June 30.

Robert Blanchard, a program manager with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said he could not say specifically what the cut would mean to each child in the program. He said families would not receive the rate that was negotiated at the time of the adoptions. Children with similar needs in the state’s foster care programs would still receive the full rate.

Adopted children in the program would still receive medical care and treatment under the state’s Medicaid program known as MaineCare, Blanchard said. 

Some lawmakers questioned whether the shift would discourage adoption.

“I’m still trying to get to the true impact,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, “because I think we can come up with a general statement and it doesn’t tell me the human story and that’s what I’m looking for.”

The committee also heard from representatives from the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System.

They said they would work to absorb the cuts without affecting students or increasing tuition. At least one said he was hopeful the cut was truly a temporary reduction and not one that would be replicated in LePage’s next budget proposal.

“The larger challenge for us would be a continuation of reductions in the upcoming biennium,” said Ryan Low, director of government relations for the University of Maine System.

“The system is facing a $30 million structural gap in the upcoming two-year biennium that is down significantly from four years ago,” Low said. “That gap assumes no in-state undergraduate tuition or fee increases for fiscal year 2014 and 2015 and it assumes a flat state appropriation.”

James Soucie, chief financial officer for Maine Maritime Academy, told the committee the $113,000 reduction to his school’s budget might not seem large in the overall scheme of things, but the 1,000-student school would feel it just the same.

Because the reduction comes three-quarters of the way through the fiscal year, there are a limited number of programs the academy could trim.

One might be fuel for the State of Maine, the academy vessel that conducts an annual training cruise for cadets. Soucie said one response would be to put the ship adrift, which saves on the cost of fuel.

“We can’t really change where we’ve decided to go,” he said. “The training committee has laid out the agenda, but that’s one of the things where we might look to see if we can save some monies.”

Lawmakers will continue to review the curtailments and may look to change some as they work out a supplemental budget to address the revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year.

Lawmakers also face another two-year budget proposal from LePage that might have to solve as much as another $100 million in revenue shortfall.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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