AUGUSTA — An emergency budget bill that would prevent the Department of Health and Human Services from running out of money in April earned strong House approval Thursday, but fell short of final passage in the Senate.

The votes followed last-minute negotiations to remove areas of concern over taxes expressed by House conservatives and to provide additional funding to hospitals to gain Democratic support.

The House vote was 109-27 and the Senate tally was 22-13, two votes short of the two-thirds needed because it’s an emergency measure. More House and Senate votes were possible late Thursday night.

If it gains final passage, the bill will go to Gov. Paul LePage for consideration. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor will have no comment until he has a chance to read the final version. The governor has 10 days to decide whether to sign, veto or let the bill become law without his signature.

LePage has been a frequent critic of the budget, partly because of the continuation of a tax on paid insurance claims. The tax was scheduled to be reduced, but the original budget approved by the Appropriations Committee continued it at its current level.

That was changed Thursday night when House Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, offered an amendment to bring the conservatives on board. The assessment will now drop from 1.87 percent to 1.64 percent on July 1 as scheduled. Also, his amendment changed cuts to hospitals so they will receive more funding than originally proposed.

The budget to address a $121 million shortfall this year shifts more than $60 million from the second fiscal year to the first, prohibits new enrollees from joining the Medicaid health insurance program for childless adults and discontinues Medicaid health insurance for 14,000 parents.

The passage of this budget means DHHS will continue to be able to pay its bills through June 30, but lawmakers have yet to come to agreement on an additional $84 million shortfall.

Senate Democrats objected to the Flood amendment, saying that it had been negotiated behind closed doors without chance for public comment. Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, tried to send the bill back to the Appropriations Committee for more vetting, but could not get enough support for her motion.

“In the past as Democrats we have been called out for doing things behind closed doors in the middle of the night,” she said. “I believe the process has been corrupted.”

Schneider’s allegation that it was the middle of the night prompted Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, to announce that it was 6:20 p.m.

And Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, said she felt that “a radical element in the House” forced the amendment to be offered even after it has received unanimous bipartisan committee support.

Democrats in both bodies offered various amendments, all of which were voted down. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, offered an amendment to require the “wealthiest 1 percent of Maine residents pay at least the same average state and local tax rate as all other Maine residents.”

He called it tax fairness and said it would provide enough money — an estimated $66 million — to more than replace the need for cuts to Medicaid.

“The Maine I know would not let a neighbor go without health insurance,” Berry said.

During the House debate, Flood acknowledged that not everyone was happy with the cuts and shifts necessary to balance the budget.

“There is no joy in the discussion of, or passage of, LD 1816,” he said. “This bill doesn’t go far enough. Yet this bill goes too far. We understand that.”

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said Democrats don’t like the budget, but supported it in a spirit of compromise.

“Democrats don’t agree that taking health care away from people who need it most will solve budget problems,” she said.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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