AUGUSTA – Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said she’d rather increase cigarette taxes than take health care from thousands of poor, sick people.

“It’s not a broad-based tax, it’s a targeted tax that ties in with good public policy,” Rotundo said. “There’s clear evidence that increase in cigarette costs is a great deterrent for young people not starting to smoke.”

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, opposes higher taxes on cigarettes and malt liquor “because it will weigh most heavily on the poor” who will continue to smoke and drink, he said Thursday. Maine taxes are already the highest in the nation, he said.

Since the cigarette tax hike plan was unveiled, Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, said she has heard from smokers who have said that if cigarette taxes get higher, they’d buy less food. “It’s hard for me to believe that people faced with economic choices would pick cigarettes over food, but that’s what they’re saying,” Mills said. Saying health care is more important than not raising cigarette taxes, Mills said she doesn’t consider those smokers’ statements “a major threat.”

Those sentiments illustrate why Democrats and Republicans support different spending plans as legislators continued meeting past the June 15 adjournment deadline.

On Thursday the House narrowly rejected, 77-74, the Republican budget in one early vote. More votes were put off until today, with a few Democrats unhappy about their party’s plan and wanting first to vote on tax reform.

All day Thursday, the two parties argued on the effects of Republican health cuts, which totaled more than $50 million, not counting federal matches.

Rep. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said Republican cuts “would mean 40,000 people would lose or be denied health coverage.”

Republicans insisted the number was 611 people.

“That’s the maximum number that would be affected. Someone’s been saying thousands, and that’s not the truth,” said Rep. Joan Bryant-Deschenes, R-Turner.

Democrats said GOP cuts would “gut” Dirigo Health.

Republicans countered that their $32 million cut to Dirigo would “refocus” the “underperforming Dirigo” to an insurance plan for small businesses and workers, not those with low incomes.

Millett explained that the Republican cuts he helped craft were meant to avoid anyone’s being thrown out of health care “except a small group of 611,” he said.

GOP cuts would not shut down the so-called non-categorical MaineCare program that provides coverage to the poor, Millett said. Maine has gone beyond a federal cap of how many people may be in that program. The Republican plan “would simply continue that shrinking of covered lives,” Millett said.

Democrats disagreed, saying taking $20 million out of that program would make it history.

People in that program “are the working poor with incomes of $9,000 a year,” Rotundo said. “Many are very ill,” she said. “We’re not talking about benefits to people who should be working and aren’t. We’re talking about people who are very poor.”

Democrats said their budget made cuts everywhere, while Republicans said cuts weren’t deep enough.

The Democratic spending plan “cut in all areas and spares none. It avoids gimmicks and a payroll push,” Mills said. Those cuts would mean that future budget deficits would shrink, she said.

Rep. Scott Lansley, R-Sabattus, said he’ll oppose the Democratic budget because it has too much fat. Deeper cuts need to happen, he said, just as people have to cut back during hard times.


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