Maine Republicans forced budget cuts that put thousands at risk

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

June 5th, 2012 

Maine State Capitol photo by Ramona du Houx

Sen. Troy Jackson said during the floor debate on the budget, “I never signed up to be the person who decides who lives and dies in this state, or to say, I’m sorry, you don’t have health care anymore.”

The vote in the Senate was 19 to 16, along party lines. Republicans forced through budget cuts that will take away health care from more than 24,000 Maine seniors, children, and working families, while also passing unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy. In the initial vote of 74 to 69, Republican lawmakers in the Maine House of Representatives did the same.

“The Republican budget cuts will do unnecessary harm to seniors and working families across our state,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “No Maine family should have to choose between putting food on the table or paying for medicine.”

The proposal will close an $80 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) budget.

“This budget is riddled with disingenuous savings, hidden costs, and illegal proposals,” said Rep. Mark Eves, the lead House Democrat on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

The Republican budget:
• reduces access to medicine and medical care for more than 5,000 seniors;
• cuts Head Start early childhood education programs for 216 children, and child-care credits for 1,400 families;
• cuts funding to home visitation programs that help prevent domestic violence for 750 families in crisis;
• eliminates health care for 7,000 19- and 20-year-olds;
• and reduces funding for women’s health and family planning by $400,000.

“This budget cuts Head Start… Why as a state would we make this a priority?” asked Sen. Justin Alfond during the floor debate. “This budget is reckless.”

The Republican budget also includes nearly $10 million in cuts that are in violation of federal law. The LePage administration DHHS cuts rely on federal waivers. The state was warned by the federal government that these waivers would be rejected, because they violate federal law.

During the debate, Democratic lawmakers repeatedly called the GOP cuts “unnecessary and harmful.” They argued that a more than $50 million surplus of existing revenue should be used to blunt cuts to seniors and children.

“No senior with Lou Gehrig’s disease should be forced to choose between their medicine and heating their home,” said Rep. Paulette Beaudoin during the floor debate. “We shouldn’t be taking money from the purse of an 84-year-old grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s wrong and I won’t support it.”

Rep. Ann Peoples said “I don’t believe a working parent in Westbrook should have to quit a job because they no longer have child care. Mainers should be working their way into the middle class, not falling out of it.”

Nearly 4,500 Maine people from across the state signed an online petition that was circulated by Rep. Jon Hinck, against the GOP budget.

Rep. Helen Rankin who saw multiple constituents sign the petition said, “Without jobs or income, parents must humble themselves to ask for help. There comes a time when you have to swallow your pride just to survive. After all is said and done, we are our brother’s keeper. At least we should be.”

Republicans rejected nine Democratic amendments that would have prevented harm to seniors and children.

Democrats presented an alternative to the LePage budget; their proposal included necessary adjustments to bring the budget into balance. It prevented the harmful and risky cuts implemented in the Republican proposal.

The Democratic lawmakers’ proposal included a cost-saving MaineCare restructuring initiative that will deliver more efficient health-care services; a cost-saving, provider-fraud recovery program, and increased funding for the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

The Democratic lawmakers’ solution would have transferred $60 million in increased revenue re-projections from 2012 and 2013 budgets to help close the gap. And it would have provided approximately $28 million in savings initiatives, which included:

• a provider fraud recovery savings of $5 million;
• salary savings of $1 million;
• a MaineCare restructuring task force that projects a savings of $10 million;
• approximately $8 million in revenue transfers from other accounts;
• the restructuring of DHHS.

The Democratic lawmakers’ proposed to transfer $5 million into the state’s Rainy Day Fund or the budget stabilization account and pay for the operating costs of the Dolby Landfill. That measure would leave about a $651,485 surplus balance.

“The governor has been projecting from his primary campaign, long before he was elected, that he has been on a personal crusade to throw people off of health-care services. He wanted more cuts in DHHS for ideological reasons,” said Rep. Emily Cain.

The GOP budget removes access to health care and services for thousands of children and seniors, while adding to the state’s unfunded tax cuts. Only a handful of states in the country have cut taxes during the economic recession, and none have given the wealthy as big a handout as has Maine. Last year, a tax cut was passed that left a $400 million gap. In addition, the new cuts will cost $34 million in the next biennial budget.

The income and estate tax cuts are expected to cost the state $200 million in the current biennium and $400 million in the next, with more than 50 percent of the benefits going to the wealthiest 10 percent.

“The Republicans’ actions are both ideologically extreme and morally reprehensible,” said Maine People’s Alliance Executive Director Jesse Graham. “No other state in the country has cut so deep into programs for those who are suffering the most, while at the same time giving such large tax breaks to those who are the most well off.”

“Republicans have been so focused on the measure of success being how many people lose health care this year by throwing them off programs, rather than the real focus, which Democrats worked on — which was: how do we make sure the lights stay on, providers get paid, and as few people as possible are harmed in the process. We started this session with a fever pitch and it never let up,” said Rep. Cain.