Lawmakers OK bipartisan budget

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AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers approved a bipartisan state budget rewrite on Tuesday that closes a $310 million shortfall by making cuts to nearly every state agency, leaving the deepest marks on health and human service programs, education and municipal revenue sharing.

Republicans, with an eye on making permanent structural changes, and Democrats, keen on preserving core services, worked together to pass a budget that did not raise any state taxes or fees, matching a firm line in the sand drawn by Gov. John Baldacci.

“The chief executive set us on a reasonable and responsible path; that takes courage,” said state Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, of Baldacci, a Democrat.

The largest final cuts in the now $5.7 billion budget amounted to $55 million in education, $22 million to health and human services and $16 million in revenue sharing.

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“We as legislators were all sent here by our constituents to solve problems and to govern. My colleagues on appropriations did just that with the budget bill before you,” said state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, on the House floor just before the vote. The measure passed the House with a 110-35 vote and minutes later in the Senate, 31-2.

The initial shortfall was anticipated to be $438 million last December, due to free-falling state revenues attributed to the national economic recession. But a combination of increased state revenues and additional federal funding provided some fiscal relief, “pulled us back from the brink,” said state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston.

As a result, deeper cuts that had been proposed were mitigated.

Still, cities and towns, now in the process of finalizing their budgets, are working through the pain of the lost revenue.

“Because of the loss of revenue, we’re looking at an increase in property tax of about 1.3 mils, depending on the school budget,” said Richard Davies, Farmington’s town manager. “To hold the budget down, we have a pay reduction for all town employees across the board. The budget has been completely flat, two years in a row; we’re actually down about $3,000 from last year.”

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said the city would see a drop in state revenue of about $1.5 million.

In Rumford, officials use the previous year’s revenue sharing to pay for their budget, which means cuts made at the state level won’t be felt this year. Nonetheless, Town Manager Carlos Puiia said the budget, “came in as close as flat-funding as possible.”

State Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, the lead Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said he is still concerned that too much “one-time” funding was used to bridge the gap, but was supportive of the final product.

“Every cost-center that we focus on was touched and that is the only way you can look at a gap of this magnitude,” he said, adding that the package succeeded in reducing the size of government to some extent.

But he warned of equally tough times to come, noting that because of rising costs and federal stimulus dollars that would no longer be available for the next biennium, the state will face a $1 billion structural gap next time around.

“Yes, we do have a budget, but we have difficult days ahead of us,” he said.

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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