March 17, 2010

Baldacci rejects bid to cut aid to schools

PAUL CARRIER

— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Gov. John Baldacci has rejected an Education Department proposal to cut $36.8 million from next year's budget for state aid to schools.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron submitted the proposal Monday to the Bureau of the Budget because Baldacci and the Legislature are scrambling to find new ways to trim spending. Officials fear that a $95 million revenue shortfall in the two-year state budget may grow by $99 million.

The administration gave the Department of Education a target of $37.2 million in cuts, prompting Gendron to propose essentially level-funding education aid for 2008-09.

The state is scheduled to provide about $978 million in aid this school year and more than $1 billion in the next year, to boost its share of school costs to 55 percent.

Reducing next year's planned funding by $36.8 million would have eliminated virtually all of the increase.

David Farmer, Baldacci's spokesman, said Tuesday morning that Baldacci was just beginning to review that idea and others. Later, he said Baldacci had ordered Gendron to ''come back with new options'' because the cut in school aid was unacceptable to him.

''He wants to make sure we explore everything else first,'' said Rebecca Wyke, Baldacci's finance commissioner. ''The governor made it clear he's not interested in taking that much'' out of school aid, Wyke said.

The evolving search for education cuts underscores the fluidity of the state's quest for savings, as Baldacci reviews suggestions from department heads before deciding which ones to accept, revise or reject.

Any cuts that he proposes in the weeks ahead will come on top of the supplemental budget he submitted to the Legislature last month to address the $95 million shortfall. That budget, which is still under review by the Appropriations Committee, includes reductions in social services spending that would affect foster parents, people with mental illnesses and the poor, among others.

Some lawmakers said Tuesday that state officials should lay out the impact of relying solely on cuts to balance the budget, so everyone can see how much that would decimate programs and services.

''It's important for the governor and the Legislature to put out what $200 million in cuts would look like,'' said House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. ''I think everything is going to be tough when we actually see the reality of it.''

''People are starting to reach the point that they're looking at all options,'' which could include a combination of cutting spending, raising taxes and dipping into the state's savings, said Steve Crouse, lobbyist for the Maine Education Association.

Skeptical Republican lawmakers say Democrats may be talking up draconian cuts to help lay the groundwork for a push to raise taxes.

Another idea that surfaced this week, for example, calls for the Department of Corrections to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland if the budget gap grows.

''There's no question that this administration will need some cover'' if it eventually proposes or endorses a tax increase, Assistant House Minority Leader Robert Crosthwaite, R-Ellsworth, said before Baldacci shot down the school aid cuts.

Noting that even a $200 million shortfall represents only about 3 percent of the $6.3 billion, two-year budget, Crosthwaite said the state should be able to cut that amount ''without playing these games.''

Baldacci promised to fill the initial $95 million budget gap without raising taxes, but he has not ruled out increases in taxes or fees if the shortfall gets much bigger.

''We're not prepared to talk about raising taxes at this point,'' Farmer said Tuesday. ''There's no appetite for (raising) taxes.''

Staff Writer Paul Carrier can be contacted at 622-7511 or at:

pcarrier@pressherald.com

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