Gov. Janet Mills has laid out her priorities for the coming year in a supplemental budget proposal that allocates $127 million in new funds across an array of programs and the state’s rainy day account.
Her plan calls for additional funding for child welfare, schools, law enforcement, pollution clean up and workforce training, among other areas. It would allocate funds to initiatives that were previously supported by lawmakers but ultimately left out of a bond package last year and allocates $20 million for the state’s rainy day fund. The governor’s supplemental budget aligns with her long-term plan to grow the state’s workforce and economy and allocates money to rebuilding state departments and services that were underfunded by the previous administration.
This spending proposal, like all others, is about setting priorities. Maine has many needs and not all of them can be met by the state government, nor can all of them be addressed in a supplemental budget, which allocates additional revenue the state has collected since lawmakers passed an $8 billion, two-year budget last year.
The battle lines over this spending plan in the Legislature are shaping up to be more about what is not included in the governor’s blueprint rather than what is.
Two areas that are likely to get a lot of attention from lawmakers are waitlists for services funded through MaineCare and transportation funding.
While we are generally supportive of the governor’s efforts to direct additional funding to programs and services that safeguard and improve the lives of Maine’s citizens and that will grow the state’s economy, we share the bipartisan concern that her plan does not direct additional money to the growing crisis in the state’s behavioral health systems.
The governor’s supplemental budget blueprint does allocate $2.6 million to increase services for adults with developmental disabilities, brain injury and autism. This funding could eliminate waitlists for these services.
However, hundreds of low-income Maine children and adults are not receiving the behavioral health services, including substance use disorder treatment, that they need. Without these services, many of these children and adults end up in hospitals, out-of-state facilities and correctional institutions where their care is much more expensive to Maine taxpayers.
The state has not raised reimbursement rates for these services for a decade. Meanwhile, labor costs have risen and Maine’s workforce has shrunk. This leaves agencies scrambling to hire enough workers to provide services when Medicaid expansion has increased demand for these services.
Statewide, there is a waitlist of nearly 700 children seeking behavioral health services. Some have already waited 200 days. Erik Meyer, president and CEO of Spurwink told the BDN his agency’s residential program has 20 open beds but it cannot accept more patients because Spurwink has been unable to hire enough workers to staff the program. As a result, some children are waiting in hospital emergency rooms until they can receive services.
In recent weeks, Shalom House in Portland announced it was ending services that help with daily tasks for 170 adult mental health clients and Sweetser ended mental health therapy at five of its southern Maine clinics, leaving 450 people without these services.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is currently reviewing the state’s behavioral health services and its reimbursement rates to improve both the quality and delivery of services and the payment systems. Much of that work is not expected to be done until late this year, which concerns providers.
The budget is not the only avenue to address these problems and lawmakers will also consider several bills to increase funding and reduce wait lists for these and other services, including home care. The challenge for lawmakers will be to balance urgent needs with building a better, more comprehensive and financially sound system.
Mills’ proposed budget would also make a tiny down payment on the state’s transportation needs by allocating just $10 million in general fund money to transportation needs. Typically road and bridge repairs are funded from the Highway Fund, which gets money primarily from fuel taxes and registration fees. The state has a shortfall of more than $230 million a year to pay for repairs and improvements, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
A task force is currently reviewing the state’s transportation funding and will recommend potential changes.
Republicans have long called for more General Fund money for roads, a theme they repeated this week in their criticism of Mills’ budget outline. They have voiced opposition to the most direct way to increase funding for infrastructure — raising the state’s fuel taxes, which have been frozen since 2011.
These are just two of the examples of the prioritization questions that face lawmakers as they consider this spending proposal.
As we acknowledge that Maine has many needs — not all of which can be met — the debate over a supplemental budget in the Legislature must remain centered on funding the state’s most essential programs and services.