2012-01-04 / Maine

Maine lawmakers return to Augusta

BY GLENN ADAMS The Associated Press

AUGUSTA

Maine’s Medicaid shortfall will be the dominant and most pressing issue as lawmakers return to the State House today to begin their 2012 session.

The new year’s agenda concludes work begun by lawmakers last year, but also will include some new items pushed by Gov. Paul LePage, including Medicaid restructuring to address a state budget gap of $221 million through mid-2013, as well as energy costs and education programs.

Among the other proposals to be taken up during the 3 1/2-month, election-year session will be bills requiring prompt reporting of missing children, to better equip state police computer crimes investigators to handle a mounting backlog of cases, to outlaw “tax zapper” computer programs that enable businesses to underreport their taxable sales, and to require Maine voters to provide photo identification.

House Speaker Robert Nutting said Tuesday that lawmakers face “tremendous challenges” in the weeks and months ahead, with Medicaid the most daunting of all.

“Having said that, legislators from both sides of the aisle demonstrated last session that they were able to work together on behalf of the people of Maine. I hope that same spirit of bipartisanship will prevail in the upcoming session,” said Nutting, R-Oakland.

Still, partisan rhetoric was flying in the State House over Medicaid, known in the state as MaineCare. At issue Tuesday was LePage’s proposal to cut $60 million in Medicaid funds that keep elderly, veterans and disabled people in group homes known as private non-medical institutions.

Minority Democrats said the Republican governor has softened his call to drop that group home coverage, but only after unnecessarily scaring about 5,000 of the state’s most vulnerable people. All Medicaid programs cover 361,000 Mainers, about one-third the state’s population.

“He put so many Maine families in a state of panic all for a political game. It is disturbing,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, the lead House Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

LePage’s spokeswoman said the governor’s intention all along was to encourage lawmakers to find an alternative funding source for PNMIs, given his concerns the federal government might not approve funding for that purpose.

“His intention was never to kick the elderly out on the streets,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett, who also accused Democrats themselves of preying on people’s fears for political gain. The matter needs to be addressed as the Legislature restructures its Medicaid program, Bennett said. “From day one, (LePage) has said he’s willing to work with the Legislature.”

Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney said he’s confident the Appropriations Committee can agree on the Medicaid changes he believes are needed to avoid annual crises over funding in the program. Committee consensus is critical to full legislative approval.

Courtney, R-Springvale, is also confident the Legislature can agree to Medicaid changes by Jan. 30, a deadline the governor says must be met to avoid having the program run out of money.

“I think we can get there. They understand the urgency. The longer they delay, the deeper the cuts,” Courtney said.

Details of other major legislative proposals are expected to surface in the days ahead.

LePage’s education proposals are expected to touch on improving teacher effectiveness, strengthening and raising the profile of high school career and vocational training programs, and improving the charter school authorization law that was enacted last year. His proposal to lower energy costs calls for more cheap Canadian power and natural gas.

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