Bridging Maine’s Budget Gap: Irresponsible Proposals or Responsible Measures?

The bipartisan legislative backlash against the proposal to cut funding for private non-medical institutions (PNMIs) is just the most recent evidence of the irresponsible way the LePage Administration has handled its projected Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) budget shortfall.

In the nearly two months since the Administration first declared a problem existed, there has been a series of assertions that have proven either to be untrue or to misrepresent the situation.

First, just two weeks after projecting a $71 million budget gap in the year ahead, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew revised the estimate by a stunning additional $50 million to $121 million ($220 million over two years).

Then, after weeks of Administration claims that the shortfall was the result of a massive influx of people into MaineCare, its own report to legislators admitted that it was “the result of a series of technical budgeting miscalculations” and the “[i]ncreased enrollment accounts for just $6.5 million” of the shortfall.

Next, in a move that introduced more divisiveness into the discussion, Governor LePage asserted that “there are more Mainers receiving welfare benefits than there are income tax filers paying taxes.”  In response, MECEP Executive Director Garrett Martin told the Portland Press Herald that “this is an unfortunate mischaracterization of what’s at stake here.” Citing Maine Revenue Services statistics he countered that families in the bottom 20 percent in terms of income actually have the highest tax burden of any income group.  “While some people don’t earn enough to have an income tax obligation, they are still paying taxes that support a range of programs and services,” Martin explained.

The Administration continued to pit Mainers versus Mainers with its plan to deny MaineCare to an estimated 19,000 childless adults, suggesting that failure to adopt cuts to MaineCare would result in cuts to education and even going so far as to lay part of the blame on the state’s welfare spending (erroneously as it turns out) for Forbes magazine’s poor ranking of Maine’s business climate.

Meanwhile, the looming cuts in the Administration’s proposal have caused unnecessary anxiety for families across Maine, especially those with members residing in PNMIs or relying on programs like prescription drug assistance for seniors.

Further muddying the waters, the Governor assured legislators that the federal Department of Health and Human Services would grant the state waivers from provisions in the new Affordable Care Act that “prohibits states from making it more difficult to enroll in Medicaid.”   The (Lewiston) Sun Journal called the Governor’s claim “at best, uncertain,” adding that “Maine would have to obtain waivers that the federal government appears not to have granted anywhere else.”

In an editorial the Maine Sunday Telegram stated that “if Gov. LePage were a doctor, he might be sued for malpractice.” The Bangor Daily News went even further, accusing the Administration of “miscasting a budget problem in order to quickly make changes to fulfill an ideological agenda.”  The BDN then added that “doing so at the expense of the state’s most vulnerable people — without plans to help them and their families through the changes — is callous.”

Unfortunately, the effects of this budget proposal are more than callous.  They are real, harmful, and irresponsible.  Maine legislators need to respond with responsible measures to maintain the health care coverage for the 65,000 Mainers who would lose it under the Administration’s proposal.