AUGUSTA – Senate Democrats prevented an emergency Department of Health and Human Services budget from gaining final passage Thursday night, a surprise ending to a tense week of negotiations.
After gaining strong bipartisan House approval earlier in the night with a 109-27 vote, a $121 million budget to fix a shortfall at DHHS fell two votes short of the two-thirds needed for final passage in the Senate.
“They have just jeopardized the safety net,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman, R-Hampden.
Republicans were pushing for swift passage because the department will run out of money in April.
Democrats said they could not go along with a budget that ends Medicaid health insurance for 14,000 parents and closes the Medicaid health insurance program for childless adults. Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said they need more time to look for alternatives.
“A lot of us felt we were hurting too many Maine people,” he said. “We don’t think we should be picking some winners and some losers.”
The House and Senate have adjourned until Tuesday. It was unclear late Thursday whether a new round of budget negotiations would commence over the holiday weekend.
The Thursday evening votes followed last-minute negotiations to remove areas of concern over taxes expressed by House conservatives and to provide additional funding to hospitals to gain House Democratic support.
But Senate Democrats said they felt left out of the process and disagreed with changes meant to appease conservatives and Gov. Paul LePage.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, called the Senate Democratic action “puzzling,” especially given strong bipartisan support in the House and his belief that the compromise would have avoided a veto by the governor.
“The irresponsible action of Senate Democrats in playing Russian Roulette with the DHHS budget puts at risk the well-being of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens and the health care providers who serve them,” he said in a prepared statement.
The budget gained easy House passage earlier in the day after Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, offered an amendment to bring the conservatives on board. A tax on paid insurance claims that was set to continue at its current level will now drop and hospitals will get more money than originally proposed.
The budget to address a $121 million shortfall this year shifts more than $60 million from the second fiscal year to the first, prohibits new enrollees from joining the Medicaid health insurance program for childless adults and discontinues Medicaid health insurance for 14,000 parents.
Plowman said the measure needs to be passed well in advance of April because that’s when the department is scheduled to run out of money. Democrats said they believe they have until April to find other solutions.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he could not support the budget, saying it was “based on a manufactured crisis.” While it saves state funds on Medicaid, it will increase local costs, he said.
“This budget shifts costs from the state on to local communities,” he said.
Senate Democrats objected to the Flood amendment, saying that it had been negotiated behind closed doors without chance for public comment. Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, tried to send the bill back to the Appropriations Committee for more vetting, but could not get enough support for her motion.
“In the past as Democrats we have been called out for doing things behind closed doors in the middle of the night,” she said. “I believe the process has been corrupted.”
Schneider’s allegation that it was the middle of the night prompted Raye to announce that it was 6:20 p.m.
And Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, said she felt that “a radical element in the House” forced the amendment to be offered even after the budget had received unanimous bipartisan committee support.
Democrats in both bodies offered various amendments, all of which were voted down. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, offered an amendment to require the “wealthiest 1 percent of Maine residents pay at least the same average state and local tax rate as all other Maine residents.”
He called it “tax fairness” and said it would provide enough money – an estimated $66 million – to more than replace the need for cuts to Medicaid.
“The Maine I know would not let a neighbor go without health insurance,” Berry said.
During the House debate, Flood acknowledged that not everyone was happy with the cuts and shifts necessary to balance the budget.
“There is no joy in the discussion of, or passage of, L.D. 1816,” he said. “This bill doesn’t go far enough. Yet this bill goes too far. We understand that.”
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said House Democrats don’t like the budget, but supported it in a spirit of compromise.
“Democrats don’t agree that taking health care away from people who need it most will solve budget problems,” she said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: