Thursday, March 20, 2014

Maine lawmakers reach early morning budget accord

Members of the budget-writing committee approve proposals to plug gaps in current fiscal year and governor's bill to replenish rainy day fund.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Lawmakers on the Legislature's budget-writing committee have reached a Amazon Deal Online to address a budget shortfall in the current fiscal year.

The committee also voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to pass Gov. Paul LePage's bill to replenish the state's rainy day fund.

Both votes, plus a third to partially address a projected shortfall in the next fiscal year, were taken around 3 a.m. Wednesday. The unanimous votes by the committee bode well for the two-thirds margin of passage of all three proposals in both houses, a prospect that had previously been in doubt.

However, potential sticking points may remain. The exact amount of the shortfall in the current fiscal year is still being calculated by the nonpartisan budget office. Overruns in the state's Medicaid program were believed to be driving the current budget gap, but the exact figure had changed, from over $100 million in January to $60 million as recently as last week.

Democratic lawmakers on the budget committee criticized the Department of Health and Humans Services Monday for not providing more data to justify the overruns in the program. The committee ultimately moved ahead without the department's assistance, relying instead on the pending analysis by the budget office.

The committee's efforts have been complicated by the governor's refusal to submit a budget proposal in what is believed to be an unprecedented move. Typically the governor submits a budget proposal, which becomes the blueprint for lawmakers to make changes.

Last week, Democrats on the committee attached the governor's proposal to replenish $21 million in the state's rainy day fund to a budget bill for the next fiscal year. Republicans on the panel objected to the proposal because it was likely to fail after a presumed veto by the governor.

In the deal reached early Wednesday morning, the budget committee voted to approve a clean version of the governor's rainy day fund proposal. It also passed a budget bill for the next fiscal year that restores about $15.4 million in cuts, including funding for education ($9.6 million), longevity pay for state employees ($4.5 million), the Head Start program ($500,000), student scholarship funds ($600,000) and the Baxter School for the Deaf ($200,000).

More details of the budget deal are expected to be released Wednesday after the nonpartisan budget office completes its analysis.

This story will be updated.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:smistler@pressherald.comTwitter: @stevemistler

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