AUGUSTA – Maine’s two-year, $5.21 billion budget – up from $5.1 billion – begins July 1 and will drive everything from state universities and local schools to prisons, Baxter State Park and nursing homes. State leaders didn’t raise taxes to do it, but there will be pain.

Several fees were raised. Going up are hunting and fishing licenses, registrations for all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, state beach and park admissions, and fees for criminal background checks.

Medical co-payments for some people on MaineCare (Medicaid) were raised rather than kick people out.

Property tax relief was changed to become more need-based. Only those with homes valued at $125,000 and under will get a state Homestead Exemption. The closer a home value is to $125,000, the less tax relief the homeowner will receive.

Gov. John Baldacci’s budget eliminated some state jobs. As of last week the reduction was the equivalent of 229 full-time positions, said Administration Commissioner Becky Wyke. Initially 153 state employees faced layoffs. As of last week 87 workers had found other jobs in state government; the remaining 66 were laid off, retired or left, Wyke said.

Much of the budget-balancing act happened by freezing spending on programs or reducing traditional spending increases. State money for grades K-12, which was increasing at 5 percent-plus annually in recent years, will go up 1.2 percent this year.

Statewide, schools are scheduled to get a .5 percent increase in General Purpose Aid funding next year.

With the overall student population going down, Baldacci is expecting schools to make changes to save, especially in areas of administration.

The state budget was also balanced by making cuts in several programs, including community support services for the mentally ill and retarded. And, after two former governors proposed the state get out of the liquor business, legislators did that this year. State liquor stores are being closed, and the wholesale liquor business is being privatized. Another cut was to eliminate the state’s liquor enforcement unit.

Some of the budget savings are dependent on things that haven’t happened yet, such as changes in programs to capture more federal dollars, changes that need federal waivers, and merging the departments of Human Services and Behavioral Development.

Appropriately, the budget also includes money to help legislators get a better handle on whether taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely. An allocation of $300,000 a year will fund the new Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA). That office will give legislators independent reviews of program spending and help determine whether the programs are living up to legislative intent.


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