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Maine panel OKs $40M supplemental budget

By Glenn Adams
Associated Press / April 10, 2012
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AUGUSTA, Maine—The Legislature's budget-review committee has endorsed a $40 million spending plan that avoids the full force of cuts to cities and towns to help residents with basic services and most of the tax cuts advanced by Gov. Paul LePage, panel members said Tuesday.

In addition, the two-year supplemental budget for the period ending in mid-2013 restores funding to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, which LePage wanted to cut, and avoids cuts in higher education and the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which disburses tobacco-settlement money for health programs.

The package was unanimously approved by the Appropriations Committee late Monday, setting the stage for House and Senate votes as early as Thursday.

"When I think of where we were a week ago and where we are now, I feel good," Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, a committee member, told fellow members of the Democratic caucus Tuesday.

LePage was disappointed mostly with the committee action on general assistance, the funds distributed to cities and towns for residents in need of housing, food, medicine and other basic services. Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for the Republican governor, said the committee-endorsed measure does not address the cost of the program, which has catapulted from $6.7 million in 2008 to a projected $14.3 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013.

"The governor came in committed to fixing these welfare problems, and the Legislature has given him a Band-Aid," Bennett said.

The committee-endorsed budget package would cut the state allocation for general assistance from the current maximum of 90 percent to 85 percent. The governor wanted to standardize the general assistance reimbursement rate at 50 percent, a move that mayors of the state's largest cities said would put hundreds of people on the street and shift costs to property taxpayers.

In addition, it extended the governor's proposed limit of 90 days on housing provided through general assistance to nine months, said Rep. Patrick Flood, committee co-chair.

As part of a compromise, lawmakers agreed to authorize a study into the need for basic services and ways of controlling state costs of general assistance.

"We all agree general assistance needs to be looked at," Rotundo said.

The committee agreed to support one of the tax breaks proposed in LePage's budget plan -- a sales tax exemption on breathing assistance equipment. But it called for no action on a proposed sales tax cut for wood-harvesting equipment. Also set aside were proposed income tax exemptions for retirement income and military pay for out-of-state service.

The budget accord represents a step toward winding up the year's legislative work, which also includes final action on a number of stand-alone bills addressing labor, energy, education and other issues.

However, the budget does not address $80 million in proposed cuts to social service programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. The committee is expected to take up those proposals in the weeks ahead. The full Legislature would have to return from a break in order to consider them.

Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, said the newly endorsed budget "was as difficult, if not more difficult" than one last year that addressed changes to taxes and the pension.

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