AUGUSTA — As lawmakers seek to close the estimated $221 million Medicaid budget gap, it’s clear that other state spending, including tax breaks for business, will be scrutinized as the state’s budget problems are expected to grow in January with other shortfalls in state agencies and potential reductions in federal funding.

“It seems fair and equitable to look at the entire budget, and that is what we want to do,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the Democrat lead on the Appropriations Committee. “We know there is a shortfall at (the Department of Health and Human Services), but we don’t know about the rest of government.”

Rotundo was instrumental in having committee staff assemble a list of all of the scores of tax breaks currently in law for businesses that were discussed earlier in the month. She said tax expenditures should be on the table for discussion, as well as other spending items.

“We are interested in looking at the budget as a whole,” she said.

Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, the House co-chairman of the panel, doubts that a tax breaks discussion will be “productive” in meeting the budget demands. He said the taxation committee regularly reviews business tax policies, and that is the forum for considering tax policy.

“We have done those reviews and analysis of those things ad nauseam, and it is really hard to get closure on whether those things work or not,” he said.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said right now, the only issue before the committee is the Medicaid shortfall and the governor’s proposal to fill that gap. He said while there may well be another supplemental budget, the committee can’t act on speculation.

“We can only deal what is before us,” he said.

Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett has told the panel there will be at least two more budget bills for the Legislature to consider. One is the measure to implement the $25 million in cuts found by the budget streamlining task force that he chaired, and a second for the growing list of non-Medicaid budget problems facing the state.

“That should be ready by mid- to late January,” he said in an interview. He said it would be the “traditional” supplemental budget that addresses such items as fuel costs to heat state buildings and other budget shortfalls across all state agencies. It also will address non-Medicaid budget needs at DHHS such as a shortfall in general assistance.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, the only Democratic senator on the panel, said unlike House Democrats, Senate Democrats have yet to caucus on the budget proposal. She said there are several options in dealing with the budget, including limiting the Medicaid fix to the remaining months of this fiscal year and considering the second budget year of Medicaid needs along with all the other budget demands.

“I am not sure where I come down,” she said. Hill said she is not ready to tackle business tax breaks as part of the solution until she has more information on those that may not be performing.

“That discussion can lead to uncertainty that then leads to businesses deciding to place their investments elsewhere, where they believe the climate is more certain and more dependable,” said Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, co-chairman of the legislature’s Labor, Commerce and Economic Development Committee. He said the committee has looked at tax policies and determined that many have created jobs, including the Pine Tree Zone program started by then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat.

Rector agreed that the various tax breaks for businesses need to be reviewed on a regular basis to make sure they are working. He said a good model would be the one his committee uses to assess research and development bond expenditures.

However, not all in the business community agree with Rector that a review would be negative. Chris Hall, vice president of the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, said with the serious budget problems the state is facing, the business community should expect the tax benefits they receive will be challenged.

“I think this is a conversation we know has been coming for a while, that is inevitable,” he said, “If these studies are correct, we are going to find that a lot of what we have on the books is working for us.”

Hall said a recent ranking by the tax firm of Ernst and Young judged Maine as having the best business tax investment climate in the country. He said that has been the result of bipartisan efforts over the last decade to craft tax policies to help create and save jobs.

“It’s very important to look at the number of jobs we have kept in the state because of our tax policies,” he said.

The Appropriations Committee expects to meet again Jan. 3 to work on the governor’s budget proposals.

 

 

 

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.