AUGUSTA, Maine — Congress is considering proposals to give up to $23 billion to local schools to reduce the teacher layoffs expected next year as Recovery Act funding runs out.
“We know there will be an impact on schools when the Recovery Act money runs out,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. “I think our states struggled long and hard this year to cut everywhere they possibly could, and education took very deep cuts. That’s not good for the future of our country. That’s not good for economic development.”
She said she is supporting the thrust of the legislation but is concerned about how it will be funded. Pingree said she would not rule out supporting the bill even if it were paid for by adding it to the deficit. But she added she believed there are plenty of ways to pay for needed legislation without doing so.
Both the House measure, sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and the Senate bill offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, use the Recovery Act’s model of state assistance. The Senate bill has more than 20 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
The money would be used for the “compensation and benefits and other expenses necessary to retain existing employees and for the hiring of new employees,” or for “on-the-job training activities.”
But Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said while he supports Congress paying for its unfunded education mandates — such as the No Child Left Behind Act and special education programs, he is concerned about adding to the federal budget deficit because of local budget decisions.
“I do have a concern as far as sending money back to meet shortfalls caused by local decisions,” he said. “I am always concerned about a bill that isn’t paid for and adds to our budget deficit.”
Michaud said there are far more important measures to pass this year to help the economy than this proposal. He said the Transportation Reauthorization Act needs to be passed as does an extension of unemployment benefits and an extension of aid to the states.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she opposes the Harkin bill. She said the country simply couldn’t afford to add to the deficit.
“We don’t have the money to give state and local governments,” she said. “We are only going to be imposing a further burden on the taxpayers if we borrow $23 billion to send back to the states and local governments.”
Collins said states like Maine where local schools have made “very painful decisions” to cut programs and consolidate activities would be penalized by the legislation, which would “bail out” schools in other states that had not taken such steps.
“If Senator Harkin reworks his bill to come up with a way to pay for it, or make it less expensive, I would certainly look at it,” she said. “But there is no way I could support it in its present form.”
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said states and local schools have been hard hit by the recession, but she said adding the cost of additional aid to the federal budget deficit simply pushes the cost to the next generation.
“I understand why some believe that additional education aid is needed, but I have concerns about how it will be paid for,” she said.
Snowe also raised concerns with the way the legislation is drafted. She said the money in Harkin’s proposal would be distributed the same way as the $100 billion in Recovery Act education aid. That distribution method, she said, came with its problems.
“Some states used that money to address funding gaps in other places,” she said.
Snowe suggested Harkin should tighten the language in his proposal and look for funding from other existing sources.
“There is $100 billion in uncommitted stimulus funds, “she said. “We should be redirecting this money to areas that will help the economy recover.”
The Obama administration has endorsed Harkin’s bill and the measure has had a hearing in the Senate, but the measure has not been scheduled for floor action.