AUGUSTA — Four Democratic state senators went from opposing to supporting an emergency budget for the Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday after getting assurances that new efforts will be made to help veterans maintain their health insurance.

The budget closes a $121 million shortfall for the DHHS through June 30 and includes $25 million in cuts across state government next year. It won final Senate passage, 27-8.

The House passed the budget last week, 109-27.

A week ago, the measure fell two votes short of the two-thirds approval it needed when all but three Senate Democrats opposed the bill. The opponents said they could not approve a budget that ends Medicaid health insurance for 14,000 parents and phases out the program for adults without children.

After a week of negotiations, some Senate Democrats said they could vote for the budget because they have been assured that Republicans and the governor will support efforts to direct DHHS to help veterans who would otherwise lose health insurance under the new budget.

“We were not looking to move mountains,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco. “One of our proposals helps give veterans a softer landing and reflects many of Maine’s core values.”

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, said the issue of helping veterans crosses party lines.

“We’re all working together in good faith to make sure veterans get the benefits they deserve,” he said.

Switching votes from no to yes on Thursday were Sens. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, Bill Diamond, D-Windham, Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, and Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford.

Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill, his spokeswoman announced Thursday night at the governor’s Capitol for a Day event in Madison.

In a prepared statement issued after the Senate vote, LePage said he wrote a letter to the DHHS and the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management directing them to “please ensure that your departments work closely together to ensure that all information related to individual and family veterans’ benefits is made available.”

“I was pleased to hear the budget was passed in the Senate,” LePage said in the prepared statement. “The fiscal integrity of our state is frail, but the passage of this bill today is a step in the right direction. As chief executive, these decisions are not easy, but they are necessary in order to avoid a financial crisis within our welfare system. Unlike the federal government, Maine must be able to pay its bills and achieve a balanced budget.”

While Thursday’s vote ends one budget battle, at least two more are on tap in the next couple of months. The Appropriations Committee will soon begin work on an additional $84 million in DHHS cuts that are needed in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Decisions on those cuts are expected to be even more contentious than the budget approved Thursday.

And, in March, LePage is expected to release another supplemental budget to address shortfalls in other areas of state government. Revenue forecasters who met Wednesday projected a $14 million shortfall in the current two-year budget cycle.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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