AUGUSTA — Hints of legislation and political fights to come, along with a demonstration by progressive groups, filled the halls of the State House as lawmakers began a new legislative session Tuesday.

Lawmakers got to work with brief morning sessions and committee meetings, while bracing for two large announcements.

On Wednesday, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are scheduled to announce the majority party’s legislative priorities.

Ericka Dodge, spokeswoman for the Maine Senate Democrats, said their plans will be aimed at establishing a “returned focus on strengthening our economy, putting people back to work, and growing the middle class.”

On Friday, Gov. Paul LePage is expected to release his priorities in the form of a proposed budget for the two years beginning July 1, said spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.

The administration will be starting with a $700 million gap between projected revenues and projected spending for the two-year period.

State government is already facing shortfalls in the budget for the next six months.

“There are difficult decisions ahead of us,” Bennett said. “We have multiple budget shortfalls to deal with. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring a budget.”

Along with introducing a two-year budget Friday, the LePage administration is set to propose short-term cuts to close a more-than-$100 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services. Commissioner Mary Mayhew announced that shortfall in November and blamed higher-than-expected spending on MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program.

Also, to make up for a general drop in state revenues, the LePage administration has proposed $35.5 million in spending cuts through June 30. More than $12 million is slated for general purpose aid to schools.

The proposed cut rankled Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley, who held a press conference Tuesday protesting the cuts and the state’s failure to meet a voter-mandated 55 percent funding threshold for K-12 education. The goal was first set by state government in the 1980s.

Brennan said Portland schools’ share of the statewide education cuts will be $870,000.

“So I either have to go back and look at increasing property taxes, or we have to cut services, lay off teachers, furlough teachers and look at ways that we will cut education programming that is critical to our students,” Brennan said, proposing the Legislature use $6 million from the state’s rainy day fund.

At the press conference, Rep. James Campbell, I-Newfield, said he has submitted a bill to appropriate general fund money and revenue from the state’s share from the Oxford Casino to push the state to the 55 percent threshold.

According to the Maine Municipal Association, the state’s share hovered around 45 percent in 2011-12.

Campbell said his bill would provide K-12 education more than $83 million in 2013-14 and more than $99 million the next year.

Kilby-Chesley lambasted LePage, addressing him by saying “you berate our schools, you verbally attack our educators, you beat down the students in our schools.

“You need to ask yourself: Is this what our Maine students deserve?” she said.

LePage has worked to raise funding for K-12 education before, proposing a $63 million increase in the two-year budget passed in 2011.

“We would all like to keep school funding whole,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “But when you have a $35 million hole in state government and education is 40 percent of (spending), how in the world can you leave education out of it?”

The loudest event of the day was a demonstration by progressive groups, organized under the banner of the Alliance for the Common Good.

Music from Alamoosic Lake, an Indian Island-based Native American singing and drumming band, held the crowd’s attention until Lew Kingsbury of Pittston, an organizer of the Occupy Augusta movement, rallied the crowd with a megaphone in front of signs that said “No East West Corridor” and “Money Out of Politics.”

Kingsbury said he’s encouraged by rising leaders in the Democratic Party.

 

State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com