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Op/Ed: Republicans will address general assistance shortfall in May

By Senator Mike Thibodeau

and Senator Ron Collins

Just last week, Governor LePage deployed a previously unused provision in Maine law: the line-item veto. Passed during the King administration and supported by voters in a statewide referendum, the line-item veto can be used by governors to object to portions of a budget without vetoing the entire document.

The two items Governor LePage chose to veto were: a portion of the additional funds needed to cover a projected shortfall in the FY 2013 General Assistance allocation; and $3 million in “disproportionate share” funding to hospitals and psychiatric facilities in order to offset losses in federal funding.

If the Legislature were in session, we would take up a governor’s veto within the prescribed time limit of five days. However, the Legislature is adjourned until May 15. That’s when we will return to finalize work on the FY 2013 supplemental budget.

Given the fact that the Legislature will be returning next month, legislators had to decide whether it made sense to reconvene again within five days solely to deal with the line-item veto.

Maine’s Constitution—specifically Article IV, Part Third, Section 1—provides that the Legislature may convene on the call of the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House, with consent of the majority of the members of the Legislature of each political party, all members of the Legislature having first been polled.

Based upon this provision, as well as a letter from the House and Senate Democratic leaders, we conducted the poll of members of both parties required to grant consent to reconvening the Legislature. It failed when two-thirds of legislative Republicans declined to give consent.

As two Senators who voted not to reconvene, we are writing to highlight the reasoning behind our decision. There is plenty of time to address the issues contained in the vetoes in a thoughtful, responsible manner that is both timely and respectful of the extra costs that would have been borne by taxpayers had we added yet another session day.

It is important to note that the supplemental budget we passed will fund the general assistance shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year that ends June 30. The line-item vetoes strike a portion of the projected additional appropriations needed to cover the general assistance shortfall in the fourth quarter of next year’s budget.

The vetoes leave in place several policy changes we made that will help us to address the issues going forward. For example, a Department of Health and Human Services working group will proceed to review General Assistance Program rules and regulations and make recommendations to the Legislature no later than December 1, 2012.

The focus of this stakeholder group is to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, uniformity and financial accountability of the program. The budget passed by the Legislature also includes a reduction of the current reimbursement rate to service-center municipalities from 90 percent to 85 percent and a nine-month cap on housing, with some hardship exceptions. Even if the Legislature were to wait until January 2013 to act, it will have a full four months to address the projected shortfall.

The Legislature is now in recess until May 15, pending revised revenue estimates due at the end of April and the work of the Appropriations Committee once those figures are available. When we return, we will act on the second FY 2013 supplemental budget, which addresses the estimated $85 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Reconvening the Legislature before May 15 would cost taxpayers an estimated $15,000 per day at a time when we are seeking ways to eliminate unnecessary costs. None of the items addressed in the line-item vetoes will occur before we have the opportunity to address the issues.

As legislators, we have a responsibility to carefully weigh the issues and act in the best interests of sound policy and fiscal responsibility for the people of Maine. In short, convening the Legislature this week would have been an unnecessary exercise and expense. We will continue to work to address the general assistance shortfall and ensure that the program protects Maine’s most vulnerable citizens and is financially sustainable for taxpayers.

 

Senator Mike Thibodeau chairs the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee and is a member of the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee. He represents Maine Senate District 23 in Waldo County.

Sen. Ron Collins chairs the Transportation Committee and is a member of the State and Local Government Committee. Collins represents Maine State Senate District 2 in York County.

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