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Maine Lawmakers Point Fingers Over New $119M Shortfall
01/14/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A new looming state budget shortfall of more than $130 million is prompting a hardening of partisan lines at the State House, where lawmakers are trading accusations over what - and whom - to blame. About $122 million of the projected gap falls within the state Department of Health and Human Services, and Republicans are pointing the finger at excessive spending on state Medicaid programs. Democrats say the unforeseen costs are the result of mismanagement at DHHS. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Gov. Paul LePage was among the first to learn about the new budget shortfall. But he says he's the last person in Augusta that Maine lawmakers should look to for guidance in trying to craft a solution.

"Let me tell you about my power with the budget," LePage said. "I have put two biennial budgets in, and six supplementals. And I've had to veto most of every one because they change them. So I have no power when it comes to this Legislature. They do what they damn well please."

And at the moment, Democratic and Republican lawmakers are looking for more detailed information from the LePage administration about the cause of the gap, which could reach more than $130 million. Thanks to a slight increase in projected revenues, the actual cost to the budget will be around $119 million.

But that's still a big number for lawmakers to tackle during a short legislative session. And the culprit, says House Republican leader Ken Fredette, is excess spending on services for the poor.

"The problem here is that once someone becomes entitled to a benefit, such as Medicaid, the problem is that you then can't really regulate how much they use it, the trips to the ER, what hospitals charge and what not, and then you sort of have no control," Fredette said. "It's like giving a kid a credit card, and they use it as they wish."

Because so many of the unforeseen costs fall within the Department of Health and Human Services, Fredette and other Republicans say it's a spending problem, and they therefore will not consider any new tax increases to close the deficit. GOP state Sen. James Hamper, of Oxford, says the gap has to be solved responsibly.

"The easiest thing to do in this situation is to cut the reimbursement rate - that which we pay the doctors and the hospitals," Hamper said. "And that's what the federal government does to us, because then you don't actually have to take anybody off the program, because the the only other option is eligibility. We have to be looking at eligibility, as to who can be on the program and who cannot."

Tensions simmered on the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, where DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Rhode Island Medicaid consultant Gary Alexander presented a study that painted Maine as a state that has been advancing a Medicaid program it cannot afford.

Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine, of Westbrook, clashed with Mayhew over whether the administration had been forthcoming with the bad news.

Rep. Drew Gattine: "This seems to me like something the department could have given us six or eight months ago, based on information that was already available to them. And this is just a sort of a repackaging of things we've been hearing over the past year."

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew: "We are not here late in the game, and I take offense to the notion that we have not been in front of this Legislature working to provide information. The fact of the matter is, this program for the last decade has been rocked by financial crisis. It has had annual shortfalls, and we've been crawling out of the hole since we lost the temporary enhanced federal Medicaid funding."

Other Democratic leaders say they will need to have definitive and verifiable information from the administration before they're willing to accept GOP predictions on the size of the deficit. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat, is the co-chair of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee.

"I think we need to look at those numbers and understand those numbers," Rotundo says. "We know from the past that sometimes the numbers that the Department of Health and Human Services have presented to us have not been accurate, and there have been problems with the numbers that they've given us."

And Sen. Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, says Commissioner Mayhew and her staff are actually responsible for the shortfalls.

"You know, mismanagement in this department for the last several quarters is just amazing to me," Craven says, "and I am not surprised that because of mismanagement that we are in the hole for $119 million dollars."

Legislative leaders say if Gov. LePage stands by his refusal to submit a supplemental budget, they will craft their own solution to the shortfall.


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