In January, Gov. Paul LePage submitted his fourth biennial budget to the Legislature. Over the last six years, the governor has remained steadfast in his efforts to reign in the uncontrolled spending in Maine government, restore fiscal discipline to state budgeting, focus on core priorities, and fundamentally to reduce the tax burden on Maine people and businesses.

To advance the governor’s priorities, I have worked over the last six years to stabilize the financial foundation for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and to refocus our limited resources on core priorities to support Maine’s most vulnerable. With Maine DHHS accounting for more than 36 percent of all state funding and more than 45 percent of all spending, the governor’s priorities of shrinking government and reducing our state tax burden could not have been advanced without addressing the one agency that had historically contributed to the annual financial chaos that dominated state budget-making and overshadowed discussions regarding other state funding priorities or tax reductions for more than a decade.

For too many years, DHHS operated as though it could be all things to all people and everything was a priority. The reality of course was that the agency pivoted from one financial crisis to the next and failed to meet its core mission. While the MaineCare program expanded from a $1.2 billion program in 2000 to a $2.4 billion program in 2010, the needs of our elderly and disabled were set aside in favor of able-bodied adults.

Today, we are no longer bailing out the boat. Gone are the days of previous administrations employing gimmicks, such as ignoring mounting debt owed to hospitals or pushing bills from one fiscal year to the next. Maine DHHS has not had an emergency budget in over three years. In fact, we have ended the last three years with a slight cushion.

My efforts to establish fiscal discipline, and to no longer accept that a Medicaid program is always running in the red, has allowed us to plan, to prioritize, and to make increased commitments to our elderly, our disabled, and the mentally ill. We have increased supports for nursing homes by over 40 percent, for homecare by over 60 percent, and we have increased spending for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities by over $100 million.

Additionally, we have transformed our management from one that only focused on paying claims to one that is focused on the value and outcomes for the $2.6 billion spent in Maine’s Medicaid program. Our efforts have led to significant investments in primary care to support better management of individuals with chronic disease. We have seen a reduction in preventable emergency department use with savings of more than $19 million.

The DHHS proposed budget for the next biennium continues to build on this success. We cannot allow Maine to return to the days of crisis management where we reel from one DHHS financial crisis to another. Furthermore, we cannot succumb to the insatiable desire of growing government at the expense of Maine’s private sector economy and the promise of good-paying jobs. What so many people need and want when they come through the doors of DHHS is a good-paying job, not a lifetime of dependency on state government. The best pathway out of poverty is a job. Growing government and this department will only increase our tax burden and detract from job retention and job development in Maine.

Given the media’s preoccupation with negative stories and headlines, it is not surprising that there has been little coverage of the fact that the 2018/19 DHHS biennial budget is not seeking a $100 million bailout. In fact, the proposed budget is seeking to further reduce the overall DHHS budget to less than our 2016/17 budget. The budget includes more than $140 million in reduced spending to support the governor’s goals for tax reduction and prudent saving in the budget stabilization fund.

Simply put, spending matters. When MaineCare and overall DHHS expenditures consume an ever-larger portion of Maine’s budget, that spending cannibalizes other priorities — such as education and infrastructure. This type of runaway spending results in more pressure to raise already burdensome tax rates.

This DHHS budget proposal continues to reprioritize department spending to those who need it most. We are eager to discuss this blueprint for the future with legislators and with the people of Maine.

Mary Mayhew is commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

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