AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Education Committee voted Monday to reject Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to shift $1 million from public education funding to pay for legal defense for the commission that authorizes charter schools. 

The committee voted 10-2 against the measure, which is in the governor’s $6.3 billion budget proposal for the two years that start July 1.

The plan met resistance from public school advocates and the state’s attorney general. It was billed by the LePage administration as a contingency for an instance in which Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, declined to defend the Maine Charter School Commission against a legal challenge of a decision to approve or deny a charter school application.

Democrats and public school supporters questioned the necessity of such a legal fund when the Attorney General’s Office typically represents state agencies in legal matters. 

The measure was unlikely to be approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Monday’s committee vote makes passage even more unlikely.

Republican Reps. Michael McClellan of Raymond and Matthew Pouliot of Augusta voted with the committee’s Democratic majority to recommend that the Legislature reject the proposal. 

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, and Rep. Madonna Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative, supported the proposal. 

LePage’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Charter schools receive public funding but are formed and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders and are largely exempt from the rules and regulations that public school districts must follow.

The LePage administration said the proposal for a legal fund reflected the politically charged atmosphere between charter school supporters and opponents, who want to protect funding of public schools.

Mills has said that her legal duties are separate from her personal feelings about charter schools. She has said that the legal fund would conflict with a provision in state law that says the attorney general must represent the state whenever it’s involved in a legal proceeding, as would a LePage plan to divert $300,000 from the Attorney General’s Office to the Governor’s Office for legal cases.

“By common law and by statute, the (attorney general) represents all state agencies,” she said. “If for some reason I had a legal conflict, I would still have to give them written consent before they could hire outside counsel.”

Mills said her office hires outside counsel routinely to settle small legal matters. She questioned why the administration would need $1 million to defend any decisions by the Maine Charter School Commission. 

The Education Committee’s decision goes to the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, which has final say on proposals with a fiscal impact.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

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