AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee have reached a deal to address a budget shortfall in the current fiscal year.
The committee also voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to recommend passage of Gov. Paul LePage’s bill to replenish the state’s rainy day fund. The governor has promised to lift his suspension on borrowing for transportation and infrastructure projects if the rainy day fund bill gets final approval.
Both votes were taken around 3 a.m. Wednesday. The unanimous votes bode well for both bills to pass by the required two-thirds margin in both houses, which had previously been in doubt.
However, potential sticking points may remain in talks over a budget deal for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The shortfall in the current fiscal year is about $40 million, although final figures are still being calculated by the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office. Overruns in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, were believed to be responsible for the gap, estimates of which have varied from more than $100 million in January to $60 million as recently as last week.
CRITICIZED FOR LACK OF DATA
Democratic budget committee members criticized the Department of Health and Humans Services on Monday for not providing more data on the overruns. The panel ultimately relied on the budget office estimate.
The committee’s efforts have been complicated by the governor’s refusal to submit a budget proposal, which is believed to be unprecedented. Typically the governor submits a prospective budget that acts as a framework for lawmakers to work from.
Last week, committee Democrats attached the governor’s proposal to replenish $21 million in the state’s rainy day fund to a budget bill for fiscal year 2015. Republicans members objected because the bill faced a likely veto.
In the deal reached early Wednesday, the budget committee voted to approve a version of the governor’s rainy day fund proposal that was separate from the budget bill.
The current year budget bill will have impacts in the next fiscal year. It 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) – that were proposed by the governor’s Office of Policy and Management. It will pay for these with casino revenue and reductions in the Pine Tree Zone Tax credit program.
More budget bill details are expected to be released over the next couple of days. The bill could come up for floor votes by Friday.
“We were pleased to be able to come to an agreement that will both pay our bills and prevent cuts to our schools and young children,” Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee, said in a written statement.
Republicans were pleased that Democrats had separated the budget bill from the governor’s rainy day fund bill. “Working together last night, we were able to restore the rainy day fund and allow the governor to release the bonds without adding new spending to the mix,” Rep. Kathleen Chase of Wells, ranking House Republican on the budget committee, said in a written statement.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: