AUGUSTA — With federal budget cuts looming, Gov. Paul LePage has ordered state agencies to come up with ways to cut $100 million in current spending in order to fund priority programs.

He said the 12-member task force established in the current budget to find $25 million in cuts will be asked to look at the additional proposals.

“I have asked each commissioner to look at their department and agencies and to start from zero,” LePage said in an interview. “Look as if you have nothing to your disposal and you are to build an agency to provide services, and you are to look at every program.”

He said while the state will not know exactly where the federal cuts will occur for months, the state cannot wait to know the specifics and he is confident the additional $75 million in cuts will be needed to offset the federal cuts at least partially. He said he is convinced the state can do a better job in providing services by this zero-base approach.

“We have to prioritize, we have to live with in our means and we have to use our resources wisely,” LePage said. “Do I have all the answers now? No, but by the end of the year we will have a much better feel for where we need to be going.”

He has been reviewing personally all of the Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability reports to see if all of the recommendations have been implemented. He said the state needs to be more efficient in the services it provides and that the OPEGA studies are a useful tool.

“We know there are federal cuts that we have to address,” he said, “such as in LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), where we are looking at $30 million in cuts already. We are not going to let people freeze this winter, not on my watch.”

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the budget task force, said it is clear the federal deficit reduction efforts will result in funding cuts to the state and will affect a wide range of programs.

He said some agencies are more dependent on federal funds than others. “I think we should look for maximum savings from this exercise,” he said. “I think that it is entirely appropriate to have a target that is above the $25 million that is required to maintain balance in the budget.”

Rosen said until the specific budget cuts are made by Congress, Maine will not know the total effect it faces, and the additional $75 million sought by LePage may not be enough. He said it is unlikely the governor will recommend, or the Legislature approve, replacing all of the federal cuts with state resources. “There will have to be a prioritization of all spending,” he said. “That will be difficult. We all know that.”

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, also serves both on the task force and the Appropriations Committee. She said it is good that the governor is taking the initiative to get ahead of the budget and agrees the task force is equipped to look at proposals in excess of the $25 million target.

“I thought getting to the $25 million would be achievable, but not easily achievable,” she said. “A hundred million sounds like a huge figure to reach, given what we just went through with two supplemental and the biennial budget. We are going to have to roll up our sleeves and be creative.”

Hill said everything will have to be on the table, including additional revenue or fees to keep essential programs operating in the state. She acknowledged that any new revenue would be a difficult sell.

LePage said the federal government has been avoiding the deficit problem for years. He said the federal government should be like the states and should not be able to spend more than they bring in from taxes. “They (the federal government) had to address the deficit problem,” he said. “They have just been kicking it down the road for 25 years.”

LePage does share the concern of members of the state’s congressional delegation about the creation of a special committee that will make recommendations that Congress must either accept in total or reject.

The backup plan if Congress rejects the package of $1.5 trillion in cuts during 10 years is an across-the-board set of cuts in both national security funds and discretionary spending.

“Across the board is the absolutely worst way to cut,” he said, “the absolute worst way. You need to set priorities.”

The budget cutting task force has yet to hold its first meeting but is expected to start work this month.

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