Vacant state positions targeted

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The majority leader in the Senate said Democrats may be willing to consider eliminating some of the 500 currently vacant positions in state government as part of a compromise to stave off a Republican-led petition drive to overturn the budget.

“We may choose to eliminate some right now,” Sen. Michael Brennan, D-Cumberland, said Monday. That would be in addition to Gov. John Baldacci’s proposal – announced Friday – to study vacant positions in state government, with a recommendation on whether to eliminate some due by January of 2006.

Comparing the standoff between Republicans and Democrats over the budget to a high school dance, where the boys and girls are clustered at opposite ends of the floor, Brennan said, “In the Part 2 budget, we’re willing to dance.”

At issue is $447 million in borrowing in the main or Part 1 budget approved by a slim majority in the Legislature in March. That $5.7 billion biennium budget is due to go into effect on July 1. A group of Republican legislators, led by Sen. Peter Mills of Somerset, has launched a citizen’s petition drive to put the borrowing on the ballot. If the group is successful at gathering 50,000 signatures by the end of June, the borrowing will be put on hold until a November vote – throwing the state budget out of balance.

Brennan said Democrats are willing to revisit that borrowing plan as part of the Part 2 or supplemental budget proposed by Baldacci last Friday, but they want some specific ideas from Republicans.

Democrats, however, are loathe to cut more deeply into programs for the poor, and the governor has said he won’t approve a broad-based tax hike, so where the money is going to come from is unclear. At the very least, the Legislature needs to fund $250 million in new school aid, demanded by voters in a referendum last June.

The Republican Party itself is divided about possible budget solutions, with Mills favoring an expansion of the sales tax and Minority Leader Sen. Paul Davis, R-

Piscataquis, saying raising taxes is not an option.

Davis has proposed budget cuts – including eliminating 150 of the 500 vacant positions – and could suggest them in the form of an amendment to the Part 2 budget, which can be used to change the main budget. The proposals include:

• eliminating 150 vacancies.

• using half of the annual $50 to $55 million in the Fund for Healthy Maine to help pay the bills.

• putting any Medicaid expansions on hold for savings of $38 million.

• tapping $24 million of the remaining Dirigo Health start-up money.

• asking state workers to pay $500 per person in out-of-pocket expenses under their health care plans for a savings of $20 million.

• redirecting $13 million in racino profits to the general fund.

• consolidating some state departments for a savings of $10 million.

• reducing state government, with each percentage point worth $38 million, if you don’t include general purpose aid and debt service.

“We have ideas,” said Rep. Stephen Bowen, R-Rockport, a member of the Appropriations Committee. “We needed a vehicle to introduce them,” and an amendment to the Part 2 budget would work.

“We’d like them to say they’re ready to be done with the borrowing plan,” Bowen said. “We’d like someone to say that was a mistake.”

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