Update From Augusta
Last week, I spent four days in Augusta learning about Governor LePage’s proposed plan to close an estimated $120 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) budget.
During that time, I listened to Commissioner Mary Mayhew, several of her DHHS staff, and hundreds of Maine citizens testify on the impact that these proposed cuts would have on their lives. I drove back home to Rumford from Augusta each night humbled by what I had heard during those intense days of testimony and presentation.
There is no doubt that we face serious budget challenges. During an era of unprecedented economic prosperity, we started down a path to expand health care coverage and services to thousands of our Maine neighbors. Unfortunately, with the massive economic dislocation caused by a global economic recession, that expansion seems unsustainable as revenues continue to decline even as demand for services, and their costs, continue to rise.
Something must be done; this is not a situation that can be ignored, nor will it just go away of its own accord. Difficult decisions, based on all the facts and realistic priorities, must be made in the coming days and weeks.
The testimony by Maine citizens last week was very sobering. We heard stories from our neighbors and members of the community concerning the circumstances they face and the impacts that these significant cuts will have on their health and ultimately their lives. The impact of these cuts will not be theoretical -- they will impact thousands of individuals and families -- not just those who receive the services, but those who provide the services as well. It means all of us and our communities will feel the effect of these cuts to some extent or another.
With that in mind, we must make these difficult decisions armed with facts. Therefore, here are the central concerns that I have and which must be answered before I will be able to support any budget initiative -- regardless of who proposes it.
What is the actual size of the budget shortfall?
Will any of these program eliminations violate federal statutes or rules thus requiring that we reinstitute them?
Will elimination of certain services create greater demand for the remaining ongoing services, erasing projected budget savings while creating dislocation for consumers and their families, workers, and providers?
What is the direct economic impact of these proposed program eliminations? How many workers will be laid off as a result of these cuts? How many providers will be put out of business? What are the stranded costs from unused facilities caused by these actions?
What is the indirect economic impact on our communities? Given the widespread and sizable nature of these reductions, what will be the secondary economic impacts on Maine communities? How many more people may lose their jobs or their livelihood?
How will these changes impact the availability, quality and cost of medical and social services for all Maine citizens?
What is the plan for and the timeframe of the transition of MaineCare recipients, workers, and providers as services are eliminated or reduced?
Without answers to these questions, the Legislature cannot make reasonable, albeit difficult, budget decisions.
Since I was elected three years ago, I have been working to make our human services and particularly MaineCare more sustainable and more affordable. There are changes that can be made that will reduce costs. There may be many unnecessary costs and programs that can be identified and eliminated.
We may need to look closely at our priorities and eligibility standards, but we must do that work mindful of the impacts these changes will make in the lives of our neighbors.
One of my legislative colleagues is fond of reminding us all that we have a constitutional responsibility to have a balanced budget. I have read Maine’s Constitution and he is correct. There is one place where the Legislature is required to produce a balanced budget.
However, there are many more places where we are directed to guard the health, safety and welfare of all Maine citizens. Both of these are constitutional mandates, and I will work to ensure we meet them both.
I have appreciated the many e-mails and calls I have gotten on this very important subject. I encourage you to pay attention to the issues as they emerge over the next days and weeks, and let me know your thinking. I will continue to work to find a way through to a budget that represents our core values as Maine citizens. As always, I can be reached at 776.8051 or on email at firstname.lastname@example.org and hope to hear from you. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve as your Representative.