AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage scolded the Legislature’s budget-writing committee Friday, raising his hand to get a turn at the microphone during a meeting on his plan to trim health and human services and then urging members to “get it done.”
LePage again raised the specter of cutting funds for nursing homes or schools if his proposal for $221 million in spending cuts doesn’t get approved by early next week.
“You’ve all been addressing this issue as if it was (just) a budget cut. It is not. We are running out of money and this is the only way I see to preserve the nursing homes,” he said.
Before speaking, LePage sat in the second row of seats in the meeting room, watching the Appropriations Committee discuss about $37 million worth of proposed cuts that need federal approval. The cuts include eliminating Medicaid coverage for 19- and 20-year-olds and some parents whose income is above the poverty level.
Committee members expressed concern about what might happen if they approve the cuts but the government denies waivers from federal requirements. The state would have to restore the services or face a loss of federal funding.
“Then we’ve got a hole left in the budget,” said Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.
“There’s a real roll of the dice with this,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.
Rotundo said a letter she got from a federal official this week makes it clear that Maine won’t qualify for waivers to make the cuts.
States can get waivers to reduce services only for experimental, pilot or demonstration projects, the letter says.
“Were not talking about a pilot project (in Maine). We’re not talking about a demonstration,” Rotundo said.
The letter also says that no state has yet been granted a waiver.
Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, tried to assure committee members that the administration would make a strong case for waivers to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
“We will build a strong case. We will work with our congressional delegation,” Mayhew said.
LePage, who said he did not intend to speak when he arrived in the committee room Friday afternoon, raised his hand a few times before being recognized to come to the microphone.
“We want to avoid closing down nursing homes,” LePage told the committee. “If this is not approved by Feb. 1 and I don’t get on a plane Feb. 2 and stay in Sebelius’ office (and get the waivers), on April 1, the state of Maine will default. We will not have money to pay the fourth quarter of 2012 Medicaid payments.”
At that point, LePage said, “I will be calling you back and asking you to give me the (state education funds) so that I don’t have to close nursing homes, and we will probably close schools.”
LePage was widely criticized last week for saying he will close schools if the cuts aren’t approved. Democrats said he was making idle threats, while Republicans said he was simply trying to add urgency to the budget talks.
Lawmakers have downplayed the possibility that schools or nursing homes would lose state funding and have to close. They said Friday that they are making progress in negotiations to close the budget gap and may have a package next week.
On Friday, LePage finished by offering to take questions from the committee. No one asked any, and he returned to his office “to make a call to Secretary Sebelius.”
Committee members then took a break before resuming the budget debate.
They are scheduled to meet today and through next week.
LePage visited the committee early on in its budget deliberations, and told the news media outside the committee room that he was frustrated that lawmakers were wasting time.
He also issued a written statement criticizing the committee for moving slowly, which angered Democrats and stalled the committee’s debate.
John Richardson — 620-7016