LePage blasts lawmakers again on DHHS budget


AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage, in his strongest words to date, criticized lawmakers Monday for drastically altering his initial budget proposal to cut $220 million from the Department of Health and Human Services and for putting forward a new plan “full of gimmicks and built on false savings.”

“Quite frankly, I believe this represents an abdication of their responsibility to the Maine people,” LePage said in a Monday afternoon press conference, his second in less than a week. “This is the exact same approach the Legislature has taken for the past 40 years and it hasn’t worked yet.”

Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee have been meeting well into the evening and worked over the weekend to come up with an alternative budget that Democrats and Republicans can agree upon.

The latest proposal is still a moving target but it differs considerably from what LePage proposed in December and, the governor said, is different than what he saw last week.

Instead of dealing with a $220 million shortfall for 2012 and 2013, lawmakers are addressing $140 million in MaineCare cuts to pay the state’s bills through June.

The biggest sticking point with the governor seemed to be the proposal to eliminate noncategoricals, or childless adults, from MaineCare eligibility. That is not included in the latest plan, although lawmakers said there is an idea to remove some of the noncategoricals but not all.

Without structural changes, LePage said, the problem cannot be solved and he said the most recent plan “continues to cannibalize state government to support an out-of-control welfare program.”

House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said the governor is wrong to keep meddling in the legislative process.

“The Appropriations Committee has been trying to clean up the governor’s mess in this budget and offer a real solution, not one that is purely ideological,” she said shortly after the governor’s press conference. “The governor’s idea of fixing the safety net is to give people a Band-Aid and a toothbrush and throw them out on the street.”

Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said the governor is wrong to keep calling MaineCare “welfare” instead of what it is: “income- and eligibility-based health care.”

Last week, the governor singled out Democrats for criticism, saying they have been “stalling since Day One.” On Monday, he targeted the entire budget-writing committee.

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said he believes the Appropriations Committee has been working hard on a budget that it can send to the floor of the House and called it “unfortunate” that they can’t do their work.

“The governor has staked out his position that without the elimination of noncategoricals, which amounts to about $22 million, that he will veto the bill,” Nutting said. “I think it’s unfortunate to have that position now because we haven’t seen the rest of the budget … there may be things in the final product he likes, things that are a trade-off that he’s willing to accept.”

Ironically, the governor said, the committee’s latest proposal to remove some but not all of the noncategoricals would require a federal waiver.

“My plan has been criticized for the exact same thing,” he said, referring to the fact that a portion of his proposed cuts would require federal waivers that Democrats and the federal Department of Health and Human Services have said likely would not be granted.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the governor’s sharp words Monday likely would delay the process.

“I hoped that they would be done [Monday],” Nutting said of the Appropriations Committee. “I’m guessing now there may be some heartburn.”

Last week, lawmakers created a hybrid budget bill that combines DHHS cuts with $25 million in savings identified by a streamlining task force.

Over the weekend, Appropriations Committee members reviewed several new elements aimed at finding a compromise that two-thirds of lawmakers can support. Some of those new things need legal language that can be complicated to draft.

The Appropriations Committee did vote to apply a 1 percent across-the-board cut in what is called “all other” spending by state agencies. The committee also swept $4 million from accounts that fund licensing boards and regulatory agencies in the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

Many of the most controversial parts of the governor’s original proposal, such as the elimination of $65 million to private nonmedical institutions, have been shelved for the time being.

If the governor vetoes a budget bill, it would go back to the House and Senate for an override or affirmation. Two-thirds of lawmakers would be needed to support an override, but lawmakers have been operating under the assumption that they would pass a two-thirds majority budget anyway.

If the budget passes only with a simple majority, it wouldn’t go into effect until 90 days after the session ends. If it passes with a two-thirds vote, it was take effect immediately.