Towards a Bi-Partisan Budget

Deliberations on closing the hole in the Department of Health and Human Services budget are at a critical juncture right now.

In order for any piece of legislation to go into effect immediately, including budget votes, it needs a vote of two-thirds in both bodies of the legislature. If it only receives a majority, then it can’t take effect until 90 days following the adjournment of the legislature. That would mean if we adjourn April 15 then the changes in the budget would not take effect until July 14 — after the new fiscal year has begun on July 1.

This fact puts both political parties in an interesting position. To generate the kinds of savings needed before the end of this fiscal year in June, changes to the budget will have to take place by mid-April. If Republicans and Democrats choose to work together, then time isn’t critical. There is still ample opportunity to come up with thoughtful solutions that can garner support from both parties.

However, if there isn’t enough agreement on the budget to get a vote equal to two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, then a simple majority vote will be the only option, leaving the 90-day requirement in place. The majority party (Republicans) can almost certainly muster the votes needed to get a bare majority and pass the budget as proposed by the governor, but there are problems with going this route. First and foremost, conclusive data has still not been confirmed. There is agreement from all parties, including the non-partisan Office of Fiscal and Policy Review (OFPR), that there is a problem. OFPR still has not, however, received the appropriate information from DHHS to allow them to verify either the exact size of the problem, or how much of it is “one-time” and how much is ongoing. Both of these must be determined before cuts of this magnitude can be made responsibly. Despite the governor’s claims to the contrary, OFPR stated in a letter dated Jan.18 that “we are still unable to adequately estimate the shortfall amount.”

Second, it is not good policy. Maine’s government works best when the parties work together. Maine faced a shortfall of over $400 million two years ago, and we were able to develop a budget that garnered unanimous support on the Appropriations Committee and received well over the two-thirds mark of support in both chambers. During that same legislative session two years ago we had five budgets that had the unanimous support of the Appropriations Committee. We can work together to solve problems, and the results are better than one side or the other having complete control.

Finally, there is the political problem. Maine citizens expect the legislature to work together on matters of such importance as the budget. To break off that long-standing cooperative tradition would not be serving the people of Maine in the most productive way.

Cuts will be necessary, and they will involve pain. These cuts can be made in a thoughtful way that will adequately protect Maine’s elderly, young and disabled. The governor will need to show leadership in bringing the parties together and avoid making partisan comments as the process continues. We can work together — we’ve proven that over the years. All sides, including the governor, need to stay positive and focused.

If you’d like to comment on this or have any questions, please let me know. You can reach me at my office at the State House at 287-1515 or visit my website, to send me an e-mail.

State 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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