Panel seeks to fill $310M budget gap

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AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee worked last weekend and are expected continue meeting through next weekend to finish up the state budget.

They have a $310 million shortfall to close in the current $5.8 billion two-year budget, which is down from the original estimate of $438 million. A combination of more federal funds and slightly higher state revenues resulted in the change.

Members of both parties have worked closely to come to agreement on many issues, though differences are likely to emerge on bonding initiatives proposed both by Democratic leadership and Gov. John Baldacci. Republicans have said borrowing negotiations took place last year at the outset of the biennial budget. They have so far withheld support for new bonding.

Last Sunday, budget-writers voted against a policy committee recommendation that would have allowed Keno games to be played in Maine, despite the fact it was estimated to bring in several million dollars in annual revenue. But they unanimously approved allowing sales of Mega Millions lottery tickets, in addition to the Maine State Lottery games and Powerball. Mega Millions sales are estimated to generate an additional $1.5 million annually, according to state officials.

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Baldacci, who opposes what he considers the expansion of gambling in the state, would have been more likely to veto the budget had Keno been included.

The decision of lawmakers to include Mega Millions has been met with disapproval, but it would be premature to issue a veto threat based on a preliminary committee vote, said David Farmer, a spokesman for the governor.

“We’re talking about $1.5 million out of a $5.8 billion budget,” Farmer said.

On Monday, members of the Appropriations Committee met with Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, to discuss proposed cuts and recent budget restorations announced by the governor.

Initial cuts to DHHS were targeted to be about $92 million, but thanks largely to increased federal funding, the amount is now $33.5 million.

“Ninety-nine percent of what DHHS does is services, so it’s hard to make a reduction in our budget and not have any service impact,” Harvey said. “What we were trying to do, just for ourselves, was to look at the dollars that are being eliminated from our budget, what of those dollars are administrative and won’t have an impact on the clients and what of the dollars have a potential impact on the clients.”

Of Baldacci’s initially proposed cuts to DHHS, about 59 percent would have impacted services. But only about 33 percent of the cuts in the latest initiative would impact services.

“We kept monitoring that as we made our budget decisions and as we developed proposals to the governor, we tried to highlight which were the service impacts versus either something that would contribute to the general fund or be an administrative cut,” Harvey said.

The committee is scheduled to meet as necessary to finish its work. Legislative leadership aims to adjourn the session in early April.

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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