Amidst Protest, Republican Backed Budget Passes Senate Vote

Augusta – Republican lawmakers in Augusta plan to use their majority to pass a state budget rewrite that makes up for an $80-million shortfall largely through cuts in social services. But Tuesday’s vote did not come without a fight.

The Maine Senate has given the proposal initial proposal with a 19-to-16 vote along party lines. A vote in the House is expected to go the same way.

People waited up to an hour to pass through state house security, most of them came to voice their opposition to the Republican backed budget proposal.

It’s a plan that includes cuts to the state’s MaineCare program, as well as tighter eligibility standards for the prescription drugs for the elderly program. The plan also eliminates primary care and home
visitation services, early childhood education, MaineCare services
for 19- and 20-year-olds and seniors’ drugs.

Betsy Whitman traveled to Augusta from Portland to voice her displeasure with the Republican’s budget. “The majority of people don’t want to see things like MaineCare cut,” says Whitman. “They don’t want to see elderly, veterans, working mothers, poor people hurt.”

$2-million in state funding would also be cut from the Head Start program which opponents say could impact more than 200 kids. Republicans point out Head Start will still receive $32-million in federal funding. “We’re one of a few states that provides state level money to Head Start,” says Hampden Republican Andre Cushing. “Although a valuable program, the $2 million we’re asking is a very small single digit percentage to what they receive in federal funding.”

Rachel Ridenour from Chelsey has a son in Head Start, and she also stands to lose her MaineCare benefits which she says could hurt her future plans. “I’m going back to school starting in the fall, and to be able to do that I was behind on some of my immunizations, and without MaineCare I wouldn’t be able to do that,” she said Tuesday.

Zach Kelley, a 20-year-old recovering addict from Belfast, stands to lose his MaineCare benefits which he says pays for the medication that’s vital to his recovery. “There’s no way I’d be able to afford it without MaineCare. If they cut MaineCare I could end up back on the street, or prison, or even worse,” Kelley said.

Republicans spent most of the day defending the cuts, saying the state has limited funds which should go to helping Maine’s most needy. “Most people realize that Maine is overgenerous with our eligibility rates,” Aroostook County Republican Tyler Clark pointed out. “While I would love to cover everyone and really expand the program, the fact is we can’t afford it.”

Clark says they watered down Governor LePage’s original proposal. LePage had initially proposed much steeper cuts to programs like the drugs for the elderly program, cuts that Clark and some other Republicans thought went too far. “The Governor originally proposed eliminating nearly 90,000 people from the system,” Clark said. “We hear a lot about throwing elderly people out of the system. I tell my constituents that if your an individual making $19,000 or less, you’re not going to lose your coverage. The same thing for an elderly couple making $24-or-$25,000.”

Democrats have come out in strong opposition to the plan and say the crowd here shows Mainer’s are on their side. “It tells me that the people of Maine feel very strongly about this as well,” Senator Chris Johnson of Windsor said. “We should be thinking long and hard about the people of Maine when we make decisions in Augusta.”

Republican leaders have a different outlook on many of those who showed up to protest their budget. “It’s the people’s house. Everyone is welcome here,” Cushing said. “Certainly it’s good to have discourse. To have chanting mobs doesn’t give you the facts that let you understand to these individuals. Many of these individuals are not impacted. They’re here to show their support for some of the organizations that are affected. Not necessarily their clients services, they’re agencies that receive considerable money from state and federal sources.”

Despite getting no Democratic support, Republicans vowed to push their budget proposal through. “Members of the minority party chose not to participate in further discussions,” Cushing said. “Part of that was philosophical, part of it I believe was a bit of gamesmanship.”

Tyler Clark says every year they wait to make these necessary structural changes, is compounding the problem. “The Democrats proposal to our budget is just that. Hoping that we might get more revenues, and not addressing the real issues.”

The crowds gathered at the State House warned Republicans that pushing this budget through could cost them dearly at the polls. “I think it will come through in November. This is not okay, what your doing,” said Betsy Whitman.