Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Democratic lawmakers are trying to rally support for a bill that would let Maine school districts spend $29 million that was included unexpectedly in the state budget without opening the polls to get voters' approval.
But time – and politics – may not be on their side.
The last opportunity to pass L.D. 1566 will come July 9, when lawmakers will convene to decide whether to override vetoes by Gov. Paul LePage before adjournment.
Supporters are seeking a two-thirds majority vote so the bill can pass as emergency legislation and take effect right away.
The bill would let districts reopen their budgets and spend the extra money during the upcoming school year without holding referendums to allow voters to decide on the revised spending plans.
School boards would be allowed to hold special budget meetings instead of districtwide votes.
Most school districts passed their budgets for the 2013-14 school year before the Legislature enacted the $6.3 billion state budget last week.
If the bill does not become law, districts will have to hold budget referendums or not spend the money until they do get voters' approval.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, did not return a call for comment.
Millett is the Senate chair of the Legislature's Education Committee, which voted 10-2 last week to endorse the bill.
Two Republicans opposed it in committee, and the Department of Education has come out against it – signs that passage may be unlikely.
"I think this got rushed through at the last minute," said Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, one of the two Republicans who voted against the bill in committee.
The other member who opposed it, Joyce Maker, R-Calais, could not be reached for comment.
Pouliot said he believes the bill was written to help Portland, where administrators bet that teachers' retirement costs would not be shifted from the state to school districts.
When the Legislature passed a budget that included the cost shift, Portland had to adjust its budget, Pouliot said.
Districts that will receive unanticipated state funding can put that money into savings until voters have a chance to approve spending it, he said.
Jim Rier, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education, said the department does not support the bill because it would remove voters from the process, a key part of how school districts have enacted budgets since state law began to require it in 2007.
Pouliot said that if districts wait, the money can be spent in the next budget year, when it will likely do the most good because of the likelihood of a future state budget curtailment.
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: