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Maine Gov Vetoes Compromise Budget as School Districts Struggle
06/24/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

As promised, Republican Gov. Paul LePage today vetoed the Legislature's compromise state budget plan. In a prepared statement, the Republican governor said he vetoed the budget that begins July 1 for two reasons - because it temporarily raises the sales tax, and meals and lodging taxes, while cutting more than $18 million from the education budget he proposed. Democrats have disputed this claim, and say the budget puts $30 million more toward education. The attention now will be on whether Democrats will be able to garner enough votes this Wednesday to override that veto. But as that plays out, a legislative committee will also hold a hearing that day on a bill that would allow school districts to waive a required local referendum vote on local school budget changes. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Maine Gov Vetoes Compromise Budget, as School Dist Listen
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Ongoing disputes over new taxes and spending have prolonged the process that usually results in a new state budget well before the annual June 30 deadline. And depending on what happens on Wednesday, schools could end up with more money than the governor's proposed budget contained. That's because legislators added an additional $30 million in educational spending.

But there's just one little problem. "Under current law, they're not going to be able to spend the money they're going to get if the budget passes," says Connie Brown.

Brown is executive director for the Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Board Association. She says many local school districts have already held referendum votes on their school budgets and are therefore limited as to what they can spend.

Even if a district receives an additional $50,000 dollars, the money must be held in reserve until the district holds another public referendum. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Rebecca Millett, a South Portland Democrat, would grant a waiver for that additional vote, for a period of one year.

"We think that it would allow them to do what they think would be best for their students," Brown says. "And the choices that school boards may have could be reinstating programs or cuts that they felt hurt education: They could choose to do property tax relief, they could choose to put some of it, or all of it, in a reserve carry-over. This would give them the flexibility that they don't have."

School funding figured prominently in the governor's veto of the Legislature's compromise budget. In a press statement, LePage emphasized that the Legislature harmed students by forcing through education cuts. The governor specifically mentioned that the Legislature's budget reduces funding for the Job's for Maine Graduates program, as well as other innovative programs, such as career and technical education and the Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Educational Services.

LePage dismissed the additional $30 million in increased education funding approved by lawmakers saying, "throwing more money at administration and overhead merely continues the status quo."

But state Sen. Rebecca Millett says school districts are struggling to meet ongoing expenses. She expects no opposition to her plan ???? waiver of the additional local school budget vote during the public hearing.

"Every school district across the state of Maine is in the same boat and I think it's in everyone's interest to try and come to a solution that will allow the school boards some flexibility but in a way that recognizes the importance of transparency and public input at the same time," Millett says.

"It all seems very haphazard to me," says David Crocker, the director of the Center for Regulatory Reform and Constitutional Government at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He takes a dim few of last-minute public hearings during the waning days of a legislative session.

And in this case, he says, lawmakers are trying to push through another bill that removes voter control at the local level. "It's after the fact, it's done after people have approved their budgets," Crocker says. "There's no clear instruction as to how this money is to be spent. It becomes a grab bag."

LD 1556 is scheduled for a public hearing at 9 a.m. in Room 436 of the State House.

File photo: A.J. Higgins

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