Morning Sentinel
BUDGET ON THE BLOCK
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BY SUSAN M. COVER
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 12/19/2009

AUGUSTA -- Gov. John Baldacci announced another round of state budget cuts Friday that will touch virtually every corner of the state -- from schools, university campuses, and cities and towns to those who need human services.

Baldacci is proposing a slate of cuts and other adjustments that total $438 million. He attributed most of the cuts to the recession.

In total dollars, the 2011 state budget will be nearly the same as it was in 2004 -- approximately $2.6 billion.

"There are difficult cuts and we will have to continue our efforts to make government leaner and more efficient," Baldacci said to a Cabinet Room full of reporters, lobbyists and legislators. "My plan does not increase taxes, fees or fines."

When pressed by reporters, Baldacci said that, even if legislators propose taxes to alleviate some of the cuts, it's "not a solution he's looking at."

"I would, at this time, veto something like that, because I think it's premature," he said.

The budget eliminates 44 state jobs, 12 of which are currently filled.

Since Baldacci took office in 2003, the state government work force has been reduced by nearly 1,000 positions, according to documents distributed by the governor's office.

The proposal, which will now be considered by lawmakers, also adds three unpaid days off for state workers -- which would bring to 23 the two-year total of unpaid days off for most state workers.

"Of course we're upset about the layoffs, but the three shutdown days is what I see as a bigger hit," said Steve Butterfield, interim executive director of the Maine State Employees Association.

When lawmakers passed the original budget earlier this year, they instituted unpaid days off, froze merit pay increases, took back longevity pay and required state workers to begin paying a portion of their health insurance.

Baldacci acknowledged those cuts in his remarks, but said state workers will have to give even more.

"These men and women are easy targets for critics and skeptics alike," he said, "but they are the police on the beat, the search and rescue, the first responders, and compassionate caregivers."

Baldacci also proposed cuts to municipalities.

Martha Freeman, director of the State Planning Office, said the budget calls for $27 million in cuts to municipal revenue sharing, cuts to General Assistance and reducing the Tree Growth fund.

She said that, with 500 municipalities in 16 counties, there's room for better coordination that will save money.

"That's a local government administration for every 2,500 state residents," she said. "We can keep services available locally and at less cost if we move to regionalize local administration."

The budget changes announced Friday follows a revised state revenue forecast that projects a $383 million deficit through the end of state fiscal year 2011. Add to that money borrowed to close a gap earlier this year and $30 million in increased costs, and the total comes to $438 million.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey said the cuts in her department, which account for $67.8 million, will result in small changes to many services provided by the state.

But rather than eliminate entire programs, they are proposing to reduce levels of service.

For example, someone who now gets 10 hours of service would be cut back to eight.

Also, the budget proposes to reduce the Medicaid reimbursement rate for "critical access hospitals," an idea already rejected once by legislators earlier this year.

Another idea that's coming back: consolidating the state's four natural resource agencies -- Agriculture, Conservation, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Marine Resources.

Freeman said the budget seeks to save $1.25 million from these agencies, but it's not yet clear what form it will take.

She said a small work group will meet to propose savings that would preserve the integrity of the four entities while combining some facilities and back office functions.

When it comes to education, Baldacci is proposing to cut $73 million from state aid to local schools and nearly $16 million from higher education.

Legislative leaders who got an advanced briefing on the budget said it's still too early to know just how all of the proposals will work or whether they are acceptable.

House Majority Whip Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said his members will look most closely at preserving programs that will help the state grow when the recession ends and at services that help the most vulnerable.

"We do need to hear from providers, advocates and recipients how those (proposals) will impact them in detail," he said.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, praised the governor for not raising taxes.

And while he, too, noted the need for more information, he said he's initially concerned that the budget does not go far enough to make long-term cuts.

Some of the one-time savings -- $70 million -- comes from the retiree health program, while $35 million in additional anticipated money comes from the federal government and $4.2 million is a transfer from the state's tobacco settlement money.

"There comes a point when you have to make priorities," he said. "It's tough to do in an election year."

Susan Cover -- 620-7015

scover@centralmaine.com