AUGUSTA – When Congress adjourned Saturday for a campaign break, federal lawmakers left numerous appropriations bills unfinished and state budget writers concerned once again about getting the numbers they need to finish their own work.
The federal and state budgets are intertwined, with state officials often relying on the availability of federal funds when determining which programs to fund, cut or eliminate here in Maine.
“It’s a disgrace,” U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said between votes Friday. “We should stay here and complete the work on the budget that is supposed to be done. It is our responsibility.”
Snowe said last year’s federal budget was not completed until the last appropriations bill was approved in February of this year.
Only two of 11 appropriations bills needed to fund government into the new budget year that started Oct. 1 were approved before both the U.S. Senate and House adjourned on Saturday.
Before breaking for the next five weeks to campaign for the Nov. 7 elections, the federal lawmakers passed a resolution permitting all other budget expenditures at last year’s levels until they return.
Besides all the budget bills they’ll have to deal with when they do go back to Washington, lawmakers will have scores of other measures on their plate, Snowe said.
The Republican, who started her career as a state lawmaker, said states will have difficult work made even more difficult by the uncertainty over federal spending levels.
“It is going to be really problematic for the [Maine] Legislature and the governor to put forward their [budget] proposal,” agreed U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat.
The former state lawmaker once chaired the Legislature’s budget writing appropriations committee and said Congress is taking a lot longer to pass budget bills than in the past.
“There is a lot of interrelationship between the state budgets and the federal budget,” Michaud said. “So much of what the state does depends at least in part on what Congress does.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Congress did accomplish some major legislation by passing the Department of Defense and the Homeland Security spending bills.
The DOD appropriations measure for fiscal year 2007 totals $463 billion, a 3.6 percent increase over 2006, including millions for defense projects in Maine.
The Department of Homeland Security budget allocates $34.8 billion and includes provisions to set security standards at chemical plants and overhauls the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But Collins agreed that more should have been accomplished by Congress before the election break.
“What I am most concerned about is that all of the remaining [spending] bills will be bundled into one omnibus bill, and there will be little time to scrutinize it,” she said. “That is not a good way to legislate.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen said a major reason why the budget measures have not been considered is the decrease in the number of days when the House has been in session to vote.
He said this year the House has had 90 voting days compared to 145 last year and he charged that GOP leaders deliberately limited floor time to seek an advantage in the elections.
“I am not sure we will do them [the budget bills] in November or December or whether it will just be punted to February, [which is] what happened last year,” Allen said. “That’s no way to run a country or a railroad.”
Members of the state Legislature’s appropriations committee agree with that sentiment. Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, said a “huge” portion of the state budget is dependent on what Congress does every year in the federal budget, and delays at the federal level ripple throughout the state budget writing process.
“We are a high receiving state,” he said, referring to the amount of federal dollars that support Maine programs. “In some programs, like Medicaid, we get nearly two dollars for every state dollar we spend.”
Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the co-chairwoman of the committee, said the federal budget continues to grow in its importance to the state. She said not having the federal spending bills approved makes a difficult process all the more difficult.