December 29, 2012

Fears grow over impact of curtailment order spending cuts

Adoption and foster care services, elder care likely targets as Legislature's Appropriations Committee seeks to implement $13.4 million in DHHS cuts

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

Advocacy groups for the elderly, mentally ill, substance abusers and the poor were bracing for the impact Friday of Gov. Paul LePage's order to cut $35.5 million in state spending to keep the current state budget balanced.

click image to enlarge

Sawin Millett Jr., the commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, and Adrienne Bennett, Paul LePage's spokeswoman, at a press conference Dec. 3.

Staff file photo by Steve Mistler

While the full effect is not entirely clear, groups are anticipating reductions in adoption and foster care services and elder care. Those cuts make up a significant part of the $13.4 million reduction the order seeks in the Department of Health and Human Services.

"With the vast majority of the cuts in human services, there is going to be harm done if those cuts are implemented, simply because DHHS has seen cut after cut after cut," said Sara Gagne-Holmes, of Maine Equal Justice Partners. "What's left are services that are vital to people."

It will be up to the Legislature to propose funding alternatives to LePage's order. Those may emerge next week, when the Appropriations Committee meets to dig out the details of the governor's curtailment package.

DHHS officials said Friday that the cuts were strategic and designed to do the least amount of harm.

"That's not to say that these cuts won't affect people," said Ricker Hamilton, director of the agency's Aging & Disability Services office. "They will be affected. They always are."

Hamilton's office is confronting a combined reduction of $1.4 million, including a significant subsidy cut to the state's 23 elder care providers.

Jim Martin, associate director of finance at Aging & Disability Services, said the office had been contacting providers to find the best way to absorb the funding reduction. Martin added that the agency also hoped to avoid cutting services that receive matching federal dollars.

The DHHS curtailment also includes a $1.5 million cut at the Bureau of Mental Health, which provides funding for mental health service providers and substance abuse organizations. The full effect of the cut is not yet clear, but it has already drawn criticism because it follows statements by several lawmakers that mental health is key to comprehensively addressing gun violence -- a clarion call prompted by the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The curtailment, designed to fill a revenue gap projected in November, hits nearly every state agency, but public schools and human services will share the brunt of the impacts, largely because the two account for roughly 70 percent of the state's two-year budget.

Administration officials emphasized that the $12.6 million cut in state aid to local schools may not hit for several months. However, the human services impact could be more immediate and long lasting unless legislators find alternative ways to keep the budget balanced.

Democratic lawmakers have already raised questions about the cuts at DHHS, an agency that the governor has previously targeted for reductions to balance other budget shortfalls.

LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor was also concerned about some of the cuts, including a $3.3 million reduction in state-funded foster care and adoption assistance.

Therese Cahill-Low, director of Child and Family Services, said the state pays about $10 million a year to families who adopt children. That payment comes in the form of a daily subsidy of $26.25 per day for each adopted child until the child turns 18.

Cahill-Low said the curtailment order would cut the daily payment in half for the final three months of the fiscal year ending June 30.

The governor's order proposes several other programmatic reductions at DHHS. It also leaves vacant a total of 307 employee positions until the end of the fiscal year. Bonnie Smith, deputy commissioner for Programs, said 247 of the positions are front-line jobs, such as caseworkers and benefit eligibility specialists. The remaining 60 posts are supervisory jobs.

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