Education official: Bill to save jobs

Posted July 30, 2010, at 9:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Obama administration officials were working Friday to secure the support of Maine’s two Republican senators for $26 billion in education and Medicaid aid to states expected to come up for a vote on Monday.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview Friday that the bill contains $40 million that will help Maine preserve more than 700 education jobs. The bill also contains $16 billion in Medicaid payments that many states, including Maine, already had built into their spending plans for the year.

To date, much of the focus in Maine has been on the Medicaid funding. Because of the lack of congressional action, Gov. John Baldacci has ordered state agencies to identify an additional $100 million in potential General Fund cuts to fill the Medicaid hole.

But Duncan said he has talked recently with Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins about the importance of the education funding to prevent what he said was a massive wave of teacher layoffs and program cuts across the country.

“I’m convinced we have to educate our way to a better economy,” Duncan told the Bangor Daily News. “We simply can’t afford to take a step back at this time … and with their courage and their leadership, we have a chance to avoid that.”

The key, Duncan said, is both sides putting aside ideology.

“They are two great champions of education,” Duncan said of Collins and Snowe. “They are aware of the challenges.”

Duncan made his comments one day after Collins and Snowe joined their Republican colleagues in blocking a bill aimed at helping small businesses gain additional credit.

While Democrats accused the GOP of obstructing a major piece of legislation aimed at helping jump-start the economy, Republicans countered that the majority party prevented them from offering amendments and then attempted to ram the bill through on a false deadline.

During a fiery floor speech that garnered national media attention, Snowe accused the Democratic leadership of playing political games with the bill instead of working with Republicans on a compromise. Snowe, who has bucked her party numerous times to vote with Democrats on key issues, called the current situation “a disgrace and a sham.”

With tensions high in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., decided to call a cloture vote Monday on the Medicaid and education jobs measures. Democrats will need to pick up at least one Republican vote to move the bill forward.

Snowe spokesman John Gentzel said Friday that Maine’s senior senator is still reviewing the proposal. Collins is also withholding judgment pending a closer read.

“Sen. Collins will examine Sen. Reid’s proposal, and take a very close look at how he intends to pay for it,” Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said in a statement. “However, Sen. Collins is concerned that it appears he has proposed cutting $3 billion from the Department of Defense, including $107 million directly from the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, which is especially worrisome. This could lead to further job losses here in Maine and stall needed construction at the National Guard base in Bangor.”

White House officials have said the $10 billion is necessary to stem a tide of teacher layoffs and cuts to education programs as school districts nationally dealing with budget reductions and the end of federal stimulus funding.

According to the Center for Education Policy, 75 percent of school districts that received stimulus funding planned to lay off teachers in 2010 or 2011. Another study by the Council of Economic Advisors estimated that as many as 300,000 education jobs could be at risk in the current fiscal year.

In Maine, education officials have encouraged school districts to avoid creating a “funding cliff” by using stimulus funds for one-time expenditures, such as capital needs, rather than to preserve jobs or to create new programs.

But in a survey this spring of 90 of the state’s 200-plus school districts, local education officials indicated they expected to cut nearly 900 jobs. Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin stressed that those job cuts likely stemmed from a variety of factors, including budget cuts and shrinking enrollments.

It was unclear Friday, however, whether schools would be restricted to using the additional federal money in the Senate bill for personnel salaries or whether they would have some flexibility.

Duncan pointed out that the $10 billion in the education jobs bill is entirely offset by spending reductions elsewhere. That is likely going to be crucial to win the support of both Republicans and Democrats concerned about adding to the federal debt.

“This is a huge deal not just for the state of Maine but for the country,” Duncan said of the bill.

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the estimated $40 million in education funding for Maine is certainly needed. But unlike the Medicaid funding also included in the bill, the education money is not included in Maine’s current budget.

Baldacci has spoken numerous times with Snowe and Collins about the importance of the Medicaid funding. But Farmer said the governor also understands that Snowe and Collins have had concerns about past bills that would need to be addressed to win their votes.

“We are hopeful the Senate will take action, but we will have to wait and see what happens,” Farmer said. “Throughout the process, both Sens. Snowe and Collins have been very receptive.”

Senate Democrats have attempted, and failed, several times to pass the Medicaid funding. The most recent attempt came last month as part of a larger jobs bill that also included an extension of unemployment benefits. But Republicans — including Collins and Snowe — filibustered the bill because it contained other, costly provisions.

Ultimately, the unemployment extension was stripped out and passed as a stand-alone bill with both Maine senators’ support.

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