Wednesday, March 12, 2014
AUGUSTA -- The Legislature's budget-writing committee adjourned late Monday afternoon, inching closer to finishing an emergency $153 million proposal that would close a state budget gap for this fiscal year.
But key, contentious issues haven't yet been voted on, such as a small, Democrat-proposed cut to public charter schools, a $10.1 million cap on General Assistance payments to municipalities and a near-$12.6 million General Purpose Aid cut to K-12 schools proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.
Republicans are talking tough on the charter school cut, which amounts to $5,160.
House Republicans spokesman David Sorensen called it a "nonstarter" and said his party's appropriators won't vote for a budget that includes it. House Democrats spokeswoman Jodi Quintero wouldn't say how tied Democrats are to the cut, saying they're "still negotiating."
In a morning session, the Appropriations Committee took a series of unanimous, line-item votes on certain parts of the package, including restoring funding to individuals in private, nonmedical institutions, hospital inpatient services and critical access hospitals -- three areas Gov. Paul LePage proposed cutting.
The governor had proposed finding $232,000 in savings by not allowing new medically needy individuals living in certain residential care facilities which accept MaineCare into a state program that assists them in paying a private rate.
He also proposed a 10 percent rate cut for reimbursement of hospital outpatient services, which the administration says will save $612,000, along with an 8 percent cut in the way the state reimburses its 16 rural critical-access hospitals for MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program. That would save $1.2 million.
LePage also proposed an 18 percent cut to contracted community mental health services. The committee reduced that cut to 5 percent, according to Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for the speaker of the House.
One of LePage's proposed spending initiatives was approved in an afternoon round of votes: $4.2 million for foster care programs, in response to an increase of children needing care -- a problem the state has blamed largely on drug abuse.
To pay for funding restorations to hospitals, the committee decided to delay $1.9 million of a hospital payment into the next fiscal year, according to Quintero. Money from a debt-service account and hazardous fund was also used, Quintero said.
In the morning, the committee also mulled a hyperpartisan, yet modest, proposal emanating from Democrats on the Legislature's Education Committee that would include public charter schools in a round of cuts.
LePage exempted charter schools from proposed cuts to General Purpose Aid for K-12 schools. LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen blasted the committee's proposal.
Sorensen, the House Republicans spokesman, said Republicans on the Appropriations Committee asked Jim Rier, the state's deputy education commissioner, to provide comparable cuts, percentage-wise, to the charter schools, saying it was done to draw attention to Democrats' main goal: "to crush charter schools in their infancy" and defend educational "status quo."
Rier said that a hypothetical round of cuts, not yet proposed, could include private schools that function as public schools, such as Thornton Academy in Saco. It also could hit Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, Jobs for Maine Graduates and and the Maine School of Science & Mathematics in Limestone.
Rier said comparable cuts in those areas would result in more than $328,000 in savings -- $265,000 at the effectively public, yet private, schools and more than $34,000 at the school for the deaf, with more than $29,000 for Limestone and JMG.
"Look at the size of the cuts that are needed to achieve the fairness Democrats are talking about," Sorensen said. "Why are the Democrats chasing $5,000 worth of cuts to charter schools without looking at the $328,000 in cuts that their self-defined fairness would require?"
In response, Quintero said the committee "is hard at work" and "we need to respect that process."
The committee adjourned after a 4 p.m. recess, partially because of snow in the capital area, Quintero said. It's expected to pick up work tomorrow, and Quintero said the committee is "getting close" to a final vote, though she wouldn't guess on a timetable.
"I think we're getting close to a final vote," she said. "They're working well together."
Michael Shepherd -- 370-7652