Just when it seemed the news from Augusta couldn’t get any worse, the governor’s office has announced an additional $99 million will have to be cut from the state budget to make up for lower than anticipated sales and income tax revenues.

The latest announcement comes after a $95 million budget shortfall Gov. John Baldacci was already trying to fill with a supplemental budget plan. That shortfall had already led to proposed cuts of $65 million to the Department of Health and Human Services that are threatening vital services to the elderly and special-needs students. This new shortfall could lead to another $34 million cut to that department’s budget.

That’s why, even though it is not an ideal solution, the governor is making the right decision to flat-fund state aid to education. The decision may not be a popular one. The state has listened to calls for years, including editorials in this newspaper, to meet the state’s long unfulfilled promise to pay 55 percent of the cost of education.

Just as fulfilling that promise seemed to be within reach, it appears it will elude the state once again. This coming school year was supposed to be the last one in the state’s plan to step up funding each year to meet the goal.

However, considering the alternatives, the state really has no choice. “There’s no place else to go,” said Susan Gendron, the education commissioner.

Elderly Mainers and their caregivers packed a public hearing in Augusta last week to protest cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services budget that would eliminate services allowing many seniors to remain independent. That includes a $762,000 reduction to home-based care for the elderly, like bathing and dressing; a $700,000 reduction to homemaker services for the elderly, like grocery shopping, laundry and housekeeping; and a $700,000 reduction to independent-living pilot projects for low-income and frail elderly.

A contingent of 150 seniors from Larrabee Village in Westbrook boarded a bus to Augusta to testify against the cuts. Lawmakers heard from seniors like 93-year-old Elizabeth Stevens, who spent time in an assisted living facility near her daughter in Philadelphia.

“It cost $3,000 a month. We got three meals a day and there was a doctor on hand and a registered nurse, but the services are not as good as they are at Larrabee Village, and the rent there is much, much less,” she said. “I never thought I’d be happy living alone in a multiple dwelling, but I’m very happy at Larrabee Village.”

Seniors like Stevens are the reason the state cannot cut services that will force more of the state’s elderly into nursing homes. It will take away their independence and end up costing more in the long run. Flat-funding state aid to education will not cost more. It will simply maintain the level of funding for schools, and, unfortunately, delay the fulfillment of the state’s promise at least one more year.

-Brendan Moran, editor

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