|6/4/2015 10:58:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: Appropriations Committee Increases School Funding, Rejects Cuts to Asylum Seekers, Methadone & Senior Drug Programs
by Andy OBrienIn a series of votes taken this week, the Legislature's Appropriations Committee voted for a substantial increase in school funding while rejecting a series of initiatives by the governor to cut coverage for opiate treatment, drug assistance programs for low-income seniors, and food and housing for legal non-citizens fleeing war and political persecution. The votes come as Democrats and Senate Republicans are working on hammering out a compromise budget by the June 30 deadline. If it receives final approval by the committee, the whole budget will be voted on by the full Legislature later this month. However, its passage is in jeopardy due to rabid opposition from Gov. LePage and House Republican leadership because it doesn't include income tax cuts or what they call "welfare reform."
On the 9-4 budget votes that are cited below, House Republicans - Reps. Jeff Timberlake (R-Turner), Bob Nutting (R-Oakland), Tom Winsor (R-Norway) and Heather Sirocki (R-Scarborough) - have been the four dissenting votes, while the two Senate Republicans on the committee, Sen. Jim Hamper (R-Oxford) and Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta), are supporting the compromise plan, as are the committee's seven Democrats.
Education Funding Increases
Despite House Republican opposition, the Appropriations Committee voted 9-4 to provide an additional $50 million in education funding. The increases would bring some relief to school districts across the state, which have been facing the prospects of higher property taxes or cutting spending due to the governor's proposals to increase the required local share of the costs of schools. According to an RSU 13 official, if $25 million was solely dedicated to local school funding, it could add about $191,000 back to RSU 13's budget, while $50 million could bring in another $450,000. Currently, RSU 13 is facing $1.7 million in increased costs, largely due to St. George's withdrawal from the district, which threatens to raise property tax rates for the average Rocklander by about $300. The committee also voted 9-4 to provide $10 million to the Maine State Grant Program to help Mainers pay for college.
Homeless, Mentally Ill and Asylum Seekers
The committee voted 9-4 to reject the governor's proposal to eliminate housing and food assistance to new Mainers who are legally in the country applying for political asylum, but are prohibited from working until their visas are approved. On Tuesday, the governor's daughter Lauren LePage, who runs the pro-LePage group "Maine People Before Politics," launched a rash of inflammatory robocalls against Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau accusing him of "siding with liberal Democrats" to reject tax cuts and providing "taxpayer welfare funding for illegal aliens." As immigrants' rights groups have repeatedly pointed out, the eligible food and housing assistance applicants in question are not "illegal" and are in fact lawfully present.
The committee also voted 9-4 against the governor's proposal to cut General Assistance funding to cities that have to spend more money than smaller towns on emergency food and shelter for the poor. In making the formula change, the LePage administration argued that cities like Portland and Bangor have a "perverse incentive" to spend money on the poor. City officials have pointed out that they support many homeless, indigent, and mentally ill people who come from other towns in the state, attracted to the service centers by jobs, services and rental housing. The committee also voted to appropriate $1.5 million for a new rental assistance pilot program for low-income people, $2 million for a new homeless shelter fund, and another $398,000 to provide housing for people with severe mental illnesses. In addition, the committee voted 9-4 to increase subsidies for operating homeless shelters and funding for indigent legal services. Recently, Portland has considered shutting down the city's overflow shelter along with other measures which could leave up to 100 men, women and children without shelter due to the governor's decision to cut funding for the homeless, according to Preble Street Shelter Director Mark Swann.
Drugs for the Elderly & Medicare Savings Plan
The committee voted unanimously to nix a LePage proposal to limit eligibility to the Medicare Savings Plan, which helps elderly patients pay Medicare premiums, co-payments and deductibles, and prescription-drug costs in the so-called "donut hole" in Medicare.
The committee also voted against some cuts to the Drugs for the Elderly (DEL) program, which provides financial assistance to seniors and people with disabilities in purchasing prescription drugs. However, the committee also voted unanimously to impose a liquid-asset means test, amounting to about $50,000 for a single person and $75,000 for a couple, on their savings, including retirement accounts. DEL is designed to help seniors - individuals with incomes under $21,775- pay for their medicines. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that approximately 800 individuals will lose DEL support because of the new asset requirements.
War on Drugs and Other Crime
The Appropriations Committee voted to reject a measure to eliminate MaineCare funding for methadone to treat 4,000 Mainers with opiate addictions. It's estimated that about 65 percent of Mainers receiving methadone are MaineCare patients. According to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, the goal of the cuts is not to save money, but to transition methadone patients to the opiate replacement drug Suboxone. However, according to addiction specialists, methadone is much more effective than Suboxone at treating patients with more serious addictions. Most doctors do not prescribe Suboxone, and there is currently a waiting list for Suboxone treatment at most local clinics that take MaineCare, including Seaport Community Health Center in Belfast and Maine Behavioral Health in Rockland.
The committee also watered down the governor's proposal to beef up drug enforcement efforts, voting 9-4 to hire four new drug enforcement agents, 10 new assistant district attorneys, two new judges and two clerks. The committee also set aside $700,000 to fund a special Cold Case Homicide unit to investigate unsolved murders.
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