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Maine Lawmakers Wrap up Budget Hearings - Now What?
04/05/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee wrapped up hearings today on a $6.3 billion budget proposal from Gov. Paul LePage. The goal now is for lawmakers to try and hammer out a competing plan that can win two-thirds approval in both the House and Senate. As A.J. Higgins reports, both parties remain optimistic that consensus can be reached. But Republicans warn that things could fall apart if Democrats insist on a plan that contains any new taxes.

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Maine Lawmakers Wrap up Budget Hearings - Now What Listen

On this last day of public hearings on the two-year budget plan, advocates for programs like Head Start turned out to make a final case. Head Start is a federally-funded program for children ages 3 to 5 that provides preschool and nutrition and medical services. It took $2 million cut in last year's budget and would be flat funded at just under $1 million.

Doug Orville, the executive director for Child and Family Opportunities that oversees the Head Start program in Ellsworth, says program cuts have already eliminated services for 226 children statewide, and is now being hit again.

"Maine Head Start providers are now absorbing an additional $1.7 million cut due to the federal sequestration, and we're currently trying to figure out how we're going to deal with those cuts," Orville said. "And it appears likely that that's going to lead to the loss of about 300 additional Head Start slots here in Maine."

And Mary Henderson, of the Maine Children's Alliance, told the committee that it's critical that Head Start get its $2 million back.

"For over 25 years, I've had various opportunities to work with Head Start families and staff and I've always come away incredibly impressed, especially with the parents that I've met," she says. "Invariably, they, with Head Start support, have overcome circumstances that probably would have crushed any ordinary person - certainly they would have crushed me."

The LePage administration is basking its spending plan on a so-called performance-based rating system, which in theory is designed to link the funding for a give program to its epxected results. Some Democrats are questioning the theory.

"We need to know more about what does it mean to have a performance-based program," said House Speaker Mark Eves. "I think there's a lot of questions that the department needs to answer."

House Speaker Mark Eves says Democrats will seek those answers from Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew next week. Still, Eves has high hopes for bipartsian agreement among the 13 members of the Appropriations Committee, which he believes will produce a better budget than the one proposed by the governor.

"As always, we're giving the Appropriations Committee members encouragement to find alternatives to the governor's budget, because what we know now from the public testimony is this isn't going to work for Maine's economy and the middle class," Eves said.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says that even Gov. LePage isn't thrilled with the results of his own budget plan, and that Republicans on the committee are working to develop improvements. But he says consensus could be hard to reach if Democrats insists on introducing new sources of revenue.

"The clear indications are that I think that they're looking to raise taxes - maybe income taxes, maybe sales taxes - but Republicans would generally be opposed to that," Fredette said.

Fredette says he hopes that the Appropriations Committee's work on the budget is well under way by the end of the month.


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