March 31, 2010

Lawmakers approve supplemental budget

$310 million budget hole closed without raising taxes

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to a supplemental budget that closes a $310 million hole in state finances by implementing cuts and taking advantage of federal money without raising taxes.

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TIME TO VOTE: Senate leaders confer at the podium Tuesday while setting a timetable to vote on the state budget. The Senate decided to take up the funding measure shortly after it was passed by the House of Representatives. The Senators are, from left, Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, Kevin Raye, R-Perry, Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, and Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

* Directs the Department of Conservation to install "iron rangers" -- fee collection boxes -- at certain unstaffed areas of state parks and historic sites. That will include the back side of Camden Hill State Park, Fort Point in Stockton Springs and Birch Point State Park in Owls Head, according to the department.

* Sets up a work group to study the delivery of mental-health and substance-abuse outpatient services.

* Requires the state librarian to designate a nonprofit organization to provide private support for the library.

* Provides $3.5 million to pay for the state's share of disaster assistance dating back to flooding in 2005, and including the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 2007 and December ice and snow in 2008.

Source: L.D.1671, as amended

With limited debate in the House and few comments in the Senate, the Legislature signed off on a document that took hundreds of hours to craft against the backdrop of falling state revenue and a deep national recession.

The House voted 110-35 to approve the emergency measure, with House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, handing the gavel to Appropriations Republican leader Rep. Sawin Millett, of Waterford, to preside over the vote.

Less than one hour later, the Senate voted 31-2 in favor of it.

Gov. John Baldacci is expected to sign the bill -- which balances the state's $5.7 billion, two-year budget -- today.

More than three months after hundreds of people protested proposed cuts to human services, the bill approved Tuesday was a significant change from the initial package put forward by Baldacci to close a $438 million shortfall.

Many of the reductions to human services and education were softened by additional federal money and rising state revenue. Unanimous support from the Appropriations Committee meant there was little disagreement between the parties on the final product.

"This is a balanced beginning to the work of picking up the economic pieces of the recession," said House Majority Whip Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. "It's a start to sweeping up the broken shards of our national economy."

The budget approved by lawmakers cuts the Department of Health and Human Services by $23 million, kindergarten-through-grade 12 education by $47 million, higher education by $8 million, and cities and towns by $16 million.

The committee rejected a proposal for three additional state shutdown days, and it restored longevity pay to state workers that had been cut in the original budget.

The budget requires about $8 million to be put into the state's rainy-day fund by June 30, with an additional $2.5 million to be deposited a year later.

Millett said that, although the committee "worked extraordinarily well together," he's worried about how much one-time money was used to fill the budget hole. That means more cuts for the next two-year cycle.

"They will leave us with a structural gap that will exceed $1 billion, easily, in my view," he said. "Yes, we do have a budget, but we do have difficult days ahead of us."

In the House, Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, offered two amendments that dealt with school funding. Although both were defeated, they drew some support from other rural lawmakers who objected to the way the state's school district consolidation law has been implemented.

"The school consolidation law is a one-size-fits-all law that requires communities to do things against their own self-interest," Johnson said.

Specifically, Johnson sought to remove penalties against certain districts for failing to comply, and to change the way the funding formula works for districts trying to consolidate.

Down the hall in the Senate, the budget bill passed unanimously without debate on initial votes, and some debate before the final tally.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said discussions will need to continue about the best way for state finances to move forward.

"The impacts of this recession have been deep, and they have been persistent," he said.


Susan Cover -- 620-7015

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