Lawmakers give LePage partial DHHS budget deal

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AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee said Thursday they have submitted a preliminary bipartisan plan to Gov. Paul LePage that would address the immediate budget shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The agreement would plug an identified $120 million shortfall at DHHS by rolling part of LePage’s budget proposal into another bill that contains $25 million in savings identified by a streamlining task force last fall.

Details of the compromise were not released and the deal is tentative, if not tenuous. However, Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations Committee said the proposal would allow the department to continue making Medicaid payments to providers through the end of fiscal year 2012. 

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said the proposal also would buy lawmakers more time to negotiate a deal over $80 million in cuts the governor has proposed for fiscal year 2013. 

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News of the deal arrived Thursday afternoon. LePage called a late press conference to acknowledge that he’d been presented with the compromise, but he did not indicate whether he supported it. 

The governor declined to take questions from the media. However, he used the opportunity to highlight the urgency of the budget gap and to take a swipe at Democrats, whom he said had been “stalling since day one.”

“They have not done a thing to help Maine people,” LePage said. 

The governor also reiterated the looming deadline to plug the current budget gap. 

“If the cash don’t flow, welfare checks don’t go,” he said. 

Rosen had a different view of the negotiations with Democrats, saying the two parties have had “very fruitful discussions.”

“Addressing these issues in just a few weeks is an extraordinary challenge and one that doesn’t line up with the timing emergency of paying the bills,” Rosen said.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said it was “unfair and untrue” for LePage to accuse Democrats of playing the role of obstructionists.

“I’ll remind the governor that Democrats are in the minority,” she said. “The Republicans have control of both the State House and Senate and if (LePage) had their support for his dangerous, irresponsible and illegal cuts, they could pass the budget without us.”

She added, “Instead, Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations Committee are working together to find alternatives to his irresponsible proposal, which has little support from lawmakers and the public, for that matter.”

Rosen hoped Republicans and Democrats would reach an agreement on the immediate shortfall by next week. 

The governor’s initial proposal would have cut $220 million at DHHS, most of it in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. As proposed, LePage’s budget would have tightened health care eligibility, eliminated funding for private, nonmedical institutions and repealed coverage for an estimated 65,000 Mainers.

Lawmakers have already rejected the $60 million cut from private, nonmedical institutions. Some of that will be paid for with $39 million the governor booked in a contingency proposal. 

Another $37 million of the governor’s proposal would require waivers from the federal Affordable Care Act.

The federal government has indicated that the waivers face a tall hurdle. However, Republicans might go along with the proposal, anyway, and book the savings in 2013.  

Rosen declined to say whether his caucus was inclined to green-light the cuts requiring federal waivers, saying those would be addressed in negotiations with Democrats.

smistler@sunjournal.com

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