It’s a victory that no one will cheer.

After weeks of around-the-clock struggle, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has come up with a compromise that fixes the hole in the Department of Health and Human Services budget while preserving key elements of the state’s medical safety net.

The proposal is a classic piece of legislative workmanship, balancing the needs of opposing interests. It will no doubt be criticized for the cuts that are in it, especially reductions of fees for hospitals and dropping coverage for working parents who would no longer qualify for subsidized health insurance.

The lawmakers, however, should get credit for what is not in their plan — namely most of the cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage — which would have eliminated state assistance for people with Alzheimer’s disease and others in assisted living programs and prescription assistance for the elderly.

One of the earliest and loudest critics is the governor himself, who wanted to address the budget shortfall by dropping 65,000 people from the health care rolls.

The compromise cuts coverage for “only” 14,000 people, leading the outraged governor to threaten to campaign against Republican legislators who don’t hold fast for his demands.

It’s hard to see what the governor is really after. Faced with time pressure — money budgeted for the programs runs out this spring — the new budget has to pass with a two-thirds vote. (A majority budget would not go into effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative session.)

Instead of crafting a response to the budget crisis that likely would get bipartisan support, LePage dusted off campaign talking points from 2010, and is trying to bully the Legislature to give in to his demands.

This may work for his political base — fiscal conservatives who agree with LePage that too many people take advantage of Medicaid — but it could never produce the kind of consensus a mid-stream budget correction requires.

Republican lawmakers will have to decide whether to follow the governor into a bruising budget fight or the Appropriations Committee’s much more sensible bipartisan compromise.

They may not like what’s in the committee’s bill, but what’s not in it may give them something to cheer about.


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