Defining the shortfall — seeking answers

Most of the activity this past week at the State House, and there has been a lot, especially for this time of year, has been about the proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

First, on Tuesday, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and a retinue of experts from the Department attempted to answer questions from the Appropriations Committee concerning the exact nature and extent of the shortfall.

Unfortunately, the answers they gave still left many questions. They were able to document that there does indeed appear to be a budget shortfall for DHHS for this fiscal year that ends June 30, 2012.  They could not state with any certainty the exact size of the shortfall, however. Numbers for the next fiscal year were even less clear.

Another question they were unable to answer with certainty was how much of this shortfall is going to recur year after year and how much is made up of one-time expenditures. This will make a huge difference in how we should approach making up the difference. While the state has to pay its bills in either case, cutting programs like drugs for the low income elderly and Head Start for children is not the most responsible way to meet one-time expenses, especially if those one-time costs are the results of errors committed by DHHS, as appears could be the case.

The rest of the week was spent hearing from the public on how the cuts will impact them. Hundreds of people were willing to wait in line to speak. There was a great deal of very moving testimony against the cuts, as well as a few people who came to speak in support of them. It was an exhausting and emotional process for all involved.

The governor had originally wanted to push this all through on a fast track, but, this is too important a subject, and there are still far too many unanswered questions. The legislature is going to slow that process down and demand more hard answers from DHHS, and others to determine the exact need for reductions and how they should be made to do the least possible harm. We may very well have to make some cuts to balance the budget, but they should be smart, well thought-out and surgical in an effort to reach a level of efficiency in the department. Rushing forward without sufficient deliberation is the wrong way to go and could end up costing the state more in the end.

Input from the public is an important piece to solving this puzzle, so please let me know if you have any ideas. Just call my office at the State House at 287-1515 or visit my website, www.mainesenate.org/diamond to send me an e-mail.

Senator Bill Diamond is a resident of Windham, and serves the District 12 communities of Casco, Frye Island, Raymond, Standish, Windham and Hollis.

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