April 13, 2012

Lawmakers give strong initial OK to budget

Even before the bill was approved, LePage said he would not sign it, stopping short of threatening a veto.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - The Legislature gave strong initial approval Thursday to a supplemental state budget that would reduce General Assistance benefits but add money for court security and investigations of crimes against children.

The bill, L.D. 1903, is a revision of the budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage to bring into balance the two-year, $6 billion budget for the period through June 2013.

Even before lawmakers approved it Thursday, LePage put out a statement saying he would not sign the budget. But he stopped short of threatening a veto. The bill will become law without the governor's signature if it wins final passage in the House and Senate.

The Legislature's Appropriations Committee had given unanimous approval to a budget that includes some of the changes proposed by the governor but eliminates others.

The initial House vote was 120-26, well more than the two-thirds support that will be needed for final passage. Opponents included conservatives who said the bill didn't cut enough and liberals who said it cut too much.

The Senate voted 35-0 in favor of the budget Thursday night.

Additional House and Senate votes will be needed before the budget goes to the governor.

"I cannot put my signature on a bill that largely ignores welfare reform," LePage said in his statement. "I have major concerns about the overspending in the General Assistance welfare program."

Under LePage's original proposal, Portland would have lost $2.6 million in state funding for General Assistance. In the budget approved Thursday, the city stands to lose $300,000. That's a big improvement over LePage's plan, said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

Brennan said a new statewide coalition of mayors helped convince lawmakers to oppose LePage's plan. The mayors said deep cuts by the state would force municipal officials to raise property taxes to cover the cost of General Assistance.

General Assistance, which is mostly state-funded, provides emergency help -- often in the form of housing -- to people in need. The state spent $11.8 million on the program last year, well over the budgeted $7.4 million, according to administration officials.

In Portland, the General Assistance budget for fiscal year 2012-13 is $7.9 million. The city's taxpayers will pay about $1.8 million and the state will pay about $6.2 million.

During Thursday's debate, Appropriations Committee Senate Chairman Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said the reforms to General Assistance are significant and the committee listened to concerns from cities and towns while modifying the governor's proposal.

LePage said spending on the program has grown "from nearly $7 million in 2008 to a projected $14.3 million in 2013."

While the governor sought to limit housing assistance to 90 days, lawmakers extended that to nine months. LePage proposed cutting the state reimbursement rate for large cities from 90 percent to 50 percent; lawmakers reduced it to 85 percent.

The budget includes a $10 million increase in funding for the program, but the new limits on benefits -- including a 10 percent reduction in what individuals can receive -- will shave nearly $2 million from the cost.

"This budget keeps Maine on the same path it's been on for 40 years and I will not be held hostage and forced to sign a budget that is irresponsible," LePage said in his statement.

Rep. Ben Chipman, an independent from Portland, said he could not support the budget because it cuts General Assistance, which he called "a social safety net for the poorest of the poor."

"There's no guarantee no one will go homeless," he said.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, said lawmakers didn't cut the welfare program enough and should have cut funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, as recommended by LePage.

"I fail to see significant changes and improvements in the welfare system of this state," he said.

Appropriations Committee members said LePage was correct to bring the problems with General Assistance to their attention but further study is needed before major reforms can be made. Part of the budget that passed Thursday calls for a study commission to examine the program and recommend reforms.

Lawmakers rejected three tax cuts proposed by LePage, including a proposal to gradually reduce the income tax on pensions. The Legislature also rejected a proposed funding cut to higher education facilities.

While it did not cut MPBN's state funding this year, the budget calls for the state and the network to determine the cost of providing statewide emergency broadcast services. Over five years, the money that goes to MPBN will be reduced until it becomes a fee-for-service contract.

Lawmakers are scheduled to recess today and return to Augusta in May for additional work, including another budget to close a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Staff Writer Tom Bell contributed to this report. 

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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