AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate, despite pressure from groups opposed to MaineCare cuts, passed a budget Tuesday that eliminates health care coverage for more than 20,000 people, cuts prescription drug coverage for senior citizens and reduces funding for Head Start.

Supporters say the cuts are necessary to cover an $83 million deficit at the Department of Health and Human Services and to put the state on a more stable financial path going forward. Opponents packed the State House hallway, creating a gauntlet for lawmakers to pass through as they entered the Senate chamber. They held signs — “Working Parents Need Safe Child Care” — and chanted “you work for us!”

The Senate voted 19-16 along party lines on an initial vote and the House voted 74-69, also along party lines. More House and Senate votes are needed before the bill goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature.

Appropriations Committee member Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Republicans could have passed on the problems to the next Legislature, but they felt compelled to bring Maine more in line with what’s common in other states. He said Maine spends $1,895 per MaineCare enrollee, while the national average is $1,187. MaineCare is the state’s version of Medicaid.

Also, Maine is in the top five in the U.S. in terms of the percentage of population on MaineCare, he said.

“It’s easy to say don’t cut,” he said. “It’s hard work to make targeted, precise reductions.”

After passing five previous budgets with bipartisan support, the parties split on the final budget of the year. House and Senate Democrats went on at length to decry the impact of the cuts, saying that children who benefit from Head Start, and the elderly who need help paying for prescription drugs, are going to be hurt.

“It’s a bean counter budget,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, an Appropriations Committee member. “It’s all about the numbers. It’s not about the people. It draws a line at a certain number with callous disregard for a person’s medical needs.”

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he’s particularly concerned about cuts to Head Start and the home visitation program, which sends social workers into the homes of new parents.

“I oppose this irresponsible budget because every child in Maine deserves a good start,” he said.

The Legislature returned to Augusta on Tuesday for what’s expected to be a three-day session to finish business for the year. While the budget was the main order of business, lawmakers are also scheduled to vote this week on five separate bond bills that total more than $96 million. If approved, they will go before voters in November.

One of those who came to protest the budget was Kim Sprague of South Portland, who said she and her husband get $215 a week to help pay for childcare for their 1-year-old. She’s worried that they will lose the subsidy if the budget is approved, which means she will have to stay home to care for the child.

“If we lose the subsidy, I will not be able to work,” she said.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said Democrats exaggerated the impact of the cuts, and reminded fellow House members that taxpayers are important too.

“If we continue to act in the same manner, the only thing we’re going to harm is that most endangered of species, the Maine taxpayer,” he said.

The budget:

* Reduces the number of low-income parents who receive MaineCare, which is estimated to affect 14,500 people.

* Eliminates MaineCare coverage for 19 and 20 year olds, which is about 7,000 people. The state must get federal permission to make the cut, and Republicans note that Maine is one of only 15 states to provide this type of coverage.

* Reduces funding to two programs that help senior citizens pay for medication, which will mean about 1,500 Mainers will lose coverage. The change means those with an income of more than $19,000 a year will not be eligible. This also requires federal permission.

* Cuts $2 million in state funding to Head Start, which will continue to receive more than $45 million in other state and federal money. Democrats asked how many children will be cut off from the program as a result of the cut, and Republicans said they hope administrative costs, not services to children, are reduced. Head Start officials said about 200 children will lose services as a result of the cut.

During Senate debate, Katz said Head Start is a federal program and the cut is only 7 percent of the total funding.

“If Head Start can’t serve the same population with population with a 7 percent cut, I’d be surprised,” he said.

In the House, Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the state has enough money to get through until next year.

“This budget and these cuts are not necessary,” she said. “There is no emergency.”

The GOP budget also revives some tax cuts set aside earlier this year. It increases the pension income tax exemption from $6,000 to $10,000; gives an income tax exemption for active duty military personnel for work outside the state; and provides a sales tax exemption for commercial wood harvesting, commercial greenhouse and nursery products. All of the tax cuts would start in fiscal year 2014, and will have no impact on the current budget.

Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said the budget is an “attack on good, hardworking families.”

“It’s also an attack on our seniors,” he said. “It takes away their access to life saving prescription drugs.”

Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said despite all of the discussion about cuts, the state has increased funding for MaineCare by $323 million in the last two years. Maine, like all states, has had to cope with the loss of federal stimulus funds that helped pay for the program during the recession, he said.

In a statement released after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, said Republicans were elected to make tough decisions.

“Difficult choices need to be made, and failure to act is not an option,” he said. “For years the Democrats have not proposed long-term solutions to this problem that threatens all state government functions.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]


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