AUGUSTA — Thomas Saviello, the Republican senator from Wilton, called Gov. Paul LePage’s budget speech on Thursday the best he’s heard in nine years.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said the only thing the governor undersold was the pain that would accompany the proposals he wants to deliver.

Republicans and Democrats could agree on one thing: The governor’s budget outline for the next biennium was short on details.

The latter will begin arriving Friday, said LePage’s communications director, Dan Demeritt. He said the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee will receive about 600 pages of budget documents that will serve as a road map to the governor’s fiscal goals.

The benchmarks include reducing the state’s pension and retiree health debt liabilities by $2.5 billion and $1 billion, respectively. LePage also wants to contribute $914 million to local education budgets while maintaining current subsidies to higher education. He plans to cut taxes and to save $20 million by eliminating so-called instant welfare for legal noncitizens.

Saviello said “welfare-on-day-one” was a hot topic when he campaigned door to door last fall.

“It was a top priority, no question,” he said.

But local Democrats and those in leadership worried the governor overplayed the welfare savings, and the problem. Or, they said, he did not reveal the full depth of the cuts he has planned for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“I actually think if he would come forward with the number of people that he’s talking about, I don’t believe in my heart of hearts that it is one-tenth the problem that he thinks it is,” Patrick said.

The progressive group Maine Equal Justice Partners agrees with Patrick. A recent study by the group says TANF costs about $30 million a year. Going by those figures, the governor’s $20 million savings over two years is more than 33 percent of the TANF budget over the same period.

Are that many legal noncitizens receiving instant TANF benefits?

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, doesn’t think so. She acknowledged that the issue is a sensitive topic in Lewiston, where she said the immigrant community can’t seem to escape the perception that it’s getting generous public assistance.

Rotundo, the ranking House member on Appropriations, said she’s sponsoring a bill this session to evaluate the TANF for noncitizens issue.

“There’s so much misinformation out there, so many stereotypes and the data doesn’t support the metaphors and the perception,” she said. “We’re going to take a broad look at all the programs and make decisions based on facts and data, not hearsay.”

Rotundo said she also wanted to put a face on the people who would be affected by the governor’s proposed TANF cut. She noted that the median duration for TANF recipients is 18 months, 42 months less than the governor’s proposed five-year cap on welfare eligibility, another proposal that he used to calculate his savings.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, was happy that the governor promised to pay down the state’s debt before pursuing bonds to pay for infrastructure.

“The greatest generational theft of wealth in history is taking place right now,” Harvell said. “We can’t do this to the kids. We’ve got to pay our bills before we can expand.”

The governor’s pledge to veto bond proposals worried Democrats, who wondered how LePage planned to fund the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges.

The governor said his plan to forgo cost-of-living increases for retirees in the state pension system and increasing the retirement age to 65 for new and recent hires would help save $524 million over the biennium.

He said those savings would also help avoid cuts in education aid to school districts and help maintain spending levels in the community college and university system.

Saviello said the trade-off with the state workers and retirees was worth it. 

“It’s like going to state retirees and giving them a choice,” Saviello said. “He’s telling them, ‘Let us make sure our kids have a future.'”

But Rotundo wondered how the governor was going to maintain state infrastructure and cut taxes with the cuts he’s proposing.

“There were a lot of things that have been promised,” Rotundo said. “And given what he’s outlined, I don’t see how he can pay for all these things. It didn’t add up.”

Rotundo bristled at LePage’s claim that the state was hurtling toward insolvency because of wasteful spending practices and taxation. During a news conference with some Democrats, Rotundo and Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, noted that the supplemental budget LePage just signed had been made easier because of the $100 million surplus the previous administration left behind.

“No broad-based tax increases, reduction in the top tier; these are things we brought forward,” Rotundo said.

Some of the things LePage presented were not new but presented as if they were, she said. “And some of the things were presented against this backdrop of what shape we’re in fiscally, which is what I take exception to.”

Republicans like Harvell and Saviello saw it differently.

“His message was consistent with how he campaigned,” Saviello said. “I haven’t seen the specifics, so I can’t comment on what changes he might make to get there.”

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