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Maine Gov's Casino Revenue Proposals Spark Debate
01/29/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

What to do with all that revenue from Maine's casinos has become a hot topic in Augusta, as lawmakers digest and debate Gov. Paul LePage's supplemental and biennial budget proposals. In the short term, LePage wants to take $14 million in casino profits, mostly earmarked for general education aid, and use it, instead, to close the state's deficit. The governor's biennial budget proposal, meantime, would change how gambling revenue arrives at the state department of education and what happens to it when it gets there. Jay Field reports.

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Last year, Maine took some steps forward, at least in the eyes of some in Washington and around the country, to undertake education reform. With a push from the governor, state lawmakers passed a plan to overhaul how Maine school distircts evaluate teachers.

And the legislature passed other reforms, including a bill expanding career and technical education and one requiring all districts to move to a proficiency-based high school diploma. Brian Langley, a Republican state senator, represents most of Hancock County and is former chair of the Legislature's Education Committee. "We know that resources are limited," Langley says.

And reforms, like the ones Maine is embarking on, are expensive. Districts have professional development budgets they can draw on. They could also pool resources, like 11 districts are doing right now as part of the Western Maine Education Collaborative.

But these kinds of steps, alone, won't generate the kind of funding that's needed. So Langley says Maine has reached out in other directions for help too.

"I sat in on some meetings this past fall with the Hewlett, Gates, West Ed - a bunch of foundations came to Maine and were pitched," he says. "These are things that need investment in, so they're looking for outside grant money."

Langley says it was too late in the foundations' annual grant-making cycles to apply. So for now, the administration will have to find a way to fund a lot of its new reforms without additional outside help.

It's a tough challenge, at a time when general purpose state aid for education is stretched thin - which brings us to the governor's biennial budget and casino revenues. In the budget, the administration is pushing a number of changes to current law. One would add education reform initiatives to the list of services funded by general state aid to schools. Another would let the state transfer casino revenues directly into the account used to pay this state aid to school districts.

"That, somehow, is changing the intent of that fund," says Paul Stears who runs SAD 4, a rural school district in Piscataquis and Somerset Counties. "The voters, when they authorized the casino, were thinking that that money was going directly to support essential programs and services, or the general fund."

And not, says Stearns, to a long list of education reform initiaitives. Stearns worries the programs will siphon resources away from districts, when they're already dealing with fallout from the recent budget curtailment.

But Jim Rier, a deputy commissioner with the Maine Department of Education, says the state is well within its rights to bring teacher evaluation and other reforms into the essential services column, and then use the casino revenues to fund these programs.

"The casino legislation, and the vote and so forth that created that, didn't say how specifically those funds were to flow," Rier says. "They were to go to general purpose aid for schools and that's where they are."

Lawmakers are likely to have plenty of questions about casino revenues and education funding, when the Legislature takes up the govenror's biennial budget in the coming months.



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