AUGUSTA — After a day of mostly behind-the-scenes talks lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee inched only marginally closer to a deal that could return the entire Legislature to a special session so they can finish work on hundreds of bills, including several key funding measures, left unfinished earlier this month.
The committee voted Wednesday on a trio of bills that would set state funding for county jails and increase state reimbursement rates for direct care workers, including those who work in nursing homes and group homes for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But negotiators didn’t reach agreement on other key measures, including a bill to fix an error in the state’s budget law that has locked up funding for candidates running under the state’s Clean Elections Act.
Negotiators traded offers for more than seven hours, but took no public action until after 9 p.m.
“This is only Act II, Scene 1,” said Sen. Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, the Senate committee chairman, prior to the start of voting on the three bills, which were combined into a single bill in a 13-0 vote.
Committee members appeared to agree to resume negotiations Monday, but did not finalize that Wednesday.
The rate increases approved Wednesday support workers who care for more than 4,000 adults with autism and other intellectual disabilities who receive Medicaid-funded services, such as group home placements, day programs, in-home care and supportive work environments.
But time is running short for other unfinished business, including a $100 million borrowing package for state highway and bridge work, which would go to voters in November. Without legislative action by the end of June, the state could miss out on applying for federal matching grants.
Earlier in the day those affected by the impasse urged the Legislature to get back to work in a special session on other pressing issues, including a bill to provide $18.3 million in state funding for county jails.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association, said if funding isn’t in place by the end of the fiscal year the state’s 15 jails may have to reduce training and education programs for inmates. Joyce said staff hours would also be cut, and some jails could close if they can’t raise enough funds from property taxes to continue operations.
“There is even a consideration of sheriffs being forced to release prisoners early in order to save funding,” Joyce said. “When you think about these drastic measures you really have to question the logic behind partisan initiatives that are potentially jeopardizing the safety of Maine citizens.”
Others, including Molly Baldwin, executive director of Home Care for Maine, which provides in-home services to elderly Mainers, said if the reimbursement rate increase for home care workers isn’t passed, agencies will be forced to pay some workers less than the minimum wage or shut down entirely.
“These workers are the most dedicated people I know,” Baldwin said. “Some of these workers aren’t much younger or better off financially than the people they are taking care of.”
She said about 10 percent of direct care workers also received some form of state assistance because their wages were low to begin with. “They often are the lifeline for those they serve and every study or survey that examines the issue of long-term care has concluded that the cost to the taxpayer is reduced and health outcomes for elders improves when they spend their golden years in their own homes.”
Eileen King, deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said another bill stuck in limbo would provide over $1 billion in state funding to public schools. She said while the LePage administration has found a way to work around a funding shortfall for schools for now, the ultimate responsibility belongs to the Legislature.
“The concern we have is the precedent it would set to have the Legislature cede authority and authorize school funding to the executive branch,” King said. “Funding for public education should be in the hands of the legislators … we ask them to return and finish the job they have started.”
The Legislature adjourned on May 2, after State House leaders were unable to broker a compromise to extend the session. Bills were left unfinished, including dozens that have a broad impact on not only individual Maine people but companies and businesses.
Sharp divisions over how the state should fund a voter-approved expansion of Medicaid and a voter-approved increase to the state’s minimum wage left the Legislature in gridlock. Some lawmakers have said state budget-writers should set aside the most contentious issues and approve funding bills all sides agree on. However, others from both the left and the right are pushing for larger concessions.
Earlier Wednesday, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chairman of the committee, said he couldn’t agree to limit talks to a handful of key bills that had broad bipartisan support. He hinted that Democrats again would push to fund Medicaid expansion.
“The availability of money is not an issue, in terms of us making some of these tough decisions,” he said. “We just need to come together and decide what our priorities are.”
By the end of the day Gattine still seemed interested in packaging some bills together but discussions around funding Medicaid expansion or altering the voter-approved minimum wage hikes had faded.
Hamper said he had wanted to limit the conversation to just six key bills, including the measures increasing reimbursement rates for direct-care workers and nursing homes, county jail funding and the transportation bond. In all, the package would spend about $37 million – some of which has already been appropriated, but requires law changes to allow the money to be spent. The amount is small relative to the state’s overall 2-year budget, which is approaching $7.1 billion.
Hamper said he there was broad agreement on key issues, and the bills where there was profound disharmony should be set aside.
“We are tired of inaction and want to get these things done,” Hamper said.