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Maine Democrats Frustrated by Lack of Answers on Budget Gaps
02/12/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The LePage administration says it's too soon to predict the precise impact from the loss of federal funds linked to ongoing problems at the Riverview Psychiatric Center. The decertification of Medicaid beds at Riverview has created budget gaps that will have to be closed between now and the end of the session. Democratic leaders say all revenue options will be considered, but the administration warns of consequences for any withdrawals from the state's co-called Rainy Day Fund. A.J. Higgins reports.

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Initial estimates had pegged the budget hole punched by the Riverview decertification at around $20 million. But Mary Mayhew, the state's commissioner of Health and Human Services, says the figure could be considerably less - or not. And she told the Appropriations Committee that it all depends on whether the state is eligible to appeal the loss to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.

"I am expressing the view that I have, that we remain eligible," Mayhew said, "but there is clearly a risk of a retroactive payment that the state may owe."

That was not the kind of reassurance that Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond says he and members of the Appropriations Committee have been looking for as they prepare to fill a potential $65 million shortfall over the next five months, and another $100 million deficit predicted for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Alfond says the lack of specificity on budget details from the administration, coupled with Gov. Paul LePage's refusal to submit a supplemental budget plan, are making the puzzle that much harder to solve.

"For me, it is very troubling when we have our non-partisan staff go in front of the Appropriations Committee and say that we have nothing to verify any of the numbers that are coming, not only from the Department of Health and Human Services, but from any agency right now, just because we're not getting the collaboration that we have been used to since I've been here, or since anyone's been working in this non-partisan office," Alfond said. "So it's very, very troubling."

House Speaker Mark Eves, also a Democrat, says it's difficult to understand why LePage would sit on the sidelines of the budget debate when it was the administration's own Medicaid policies that contributed to problems at Riverviwe and the subsequent loss of funds.

"They lost federal money because they couldn't run a state-run psychiatric facility in the way that met the CMS compliance rules," Eves said. "The fact that the governor is not willing to participate in solving his own problem is striking."

Eves, Alfond and other Democratic leaders say all funding sources should be on the table as they try to balance the budget, including the state's Rainy Day Fund, also known as the Budget Stabilization Fund.

But LePage and Republicans are opposed to any efforts to make a withdrawal from the account that currently contains $60 million. Republican state Sen. David Burns, of Whiting, had already objected to the Democrats' planned use of about $20 million from the fund to restore municipal revenue-sharing payments to cities and towns.

"Neither do we need to be depleting the Rainy Day Fund more than it already is," Burns said. "It already is a very tenuous situation - at least my information tells me. We should be building it up - not draining it down right now if we want to keep this state stable."

Meanwhile, the governor has vowed that if withdrawals from the Rainy Day Fund adversely impact the state's credit rating, he will not issue more than $100 million in voter-approved bond projects.


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