When Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday night threatened to close public schools on May 1 unless his proposed Maine Department of Health and Human Services budget is ratified by the Maine Legislature, it sent ripples of surprise and worry around the state.
Can the governor make good on such a promise, which he made while fielding audience questions at a Capitol for a Day event in Lewiston?
The answer, according to the Maine Constitution, politicians and others, is no — with one caveat. Though local school districts make decisions about closing schools, it is within the governor’s purview to curtail state spending on education to balance the budget. A curtailment order would remain in effect until the Legislature acts.
He can, of course, also ask lawmakers to cut funding for schools. The state pays about $900 million annually to local school districts.
“If you don’t balance the budget, you stop cutting checks,” David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said Friday in an explanation of the governor’s remarks. “There would obviously be a huge impact on some districts. But what shape that would take, it would ultimately be up to the local school districts.”
According to Article 8 in the Maine Constitution, the Legislature requires that towns support public schools.
Other laws address the complicated formula by which those schools now are funded, which is partially through local taxes, partially through state monies and partially through federal dollars.
In the biennial budget process, the Legislature decides how much money to spend on schools. The state now pays an average of 45 percent of the costs of education through General Purpose Aid funds, but district to district, the percentage varies widely. Wealthier districts get less money from the state — as little as 4 percent of the cost of educating their students. Poorer districts with less property tax revenue get more money, receiving more than 75 percent of the school budget costs from the state.
So if the state slashed education payments — or stopped cutting checks to local districts entirely beginning on May 1 — it would have a much bigger impact on poorer districts than on the wealthier ones. Richer districts, by and large, are found in the southern coastal portion of the state.
“It would have a serious impact,” Connerty-Marin said, adding that such considerations were premature. “People are putting the cart way before the horse. The bottom line is, we’ve got a budget crisis and the money has to come from somewhere. If it can’t be found elsewhere, certainly a big chunk of it could come from education.”
The looming DHHS shortfall, estimated at $120 million through June 30, is still no reason to threaten closing schools, argued state Democrats.
“To use schoolchildren as some sort of weapon in negotiations is just shocking to me,” Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Friday. “It’s just unconscionable.”
Even Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the Senate president, referred to the idea of cutting state funding to education and closing schools May 1 as a “doomsday scenario.”
“Frankly, that is an unthinkable option,” he said. “The Legislature and the governor must find common ground to resolve the budget. It is unthinkable to me that, as a state, we would allow that to happen.”
Raye said that the governor’s words served to put an exclamation point on the urgency of solving the budget problem.
“The result of not taking action could be calamitous,” he said. “What the governor was really trying to drive home is that we are on track for the DHHS to run out of money in April, if we don’t take quick and decisive action to find and identify savings in this fiscal year.”
But, he said, the joint committee on appropriations and financial affairs has been working diligently toward finding a solution. He and other legislative leaders met Friday morning to talk about the budget with the governor.
“I think there is a very strong commitment on both sides of the aisle to get this done and make government work for the people of Maine,” he said.
House Democratic leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, also was at the budget meeting. She agreed that the Appropriations Committee is hard at work, a point which she believes the governor’s town hall comments undermined.
“The governor’s statements are not accurate, and they are not helpful in solving the problems we face,” she said Friday afternoon. “Making dramatic statements and presenting false choices distracts from real work and creates unnecessary fear in our communities … . We urge the governor to focus on the facts instead of drumming up fear and blame.”
LePage called the Friday meeting a “positive conversation” in a statement released later that day.
“I believe Democratic leadership understands the severity of the financial situation we’re in and I’m cautiously optimistic that they are committed to working towards a resolution by February 1,” he said. “However, in order to solve this budget crisis we cannot use gimmicks to fill the hole. There will be difficult decisions made.”
But Alfond, the assistant minority leader of the senate, described the governor’s town hall statements as counterproductive to the process at best.
“I just don’t understand why he can’t find positive confidence and support in what the Legislature is doing,” he said. “Everyone understands we have a major shortfall. Instead, the governor wants to just be very negative about Augusta.”
If legislators end up drawing up a supplemental budget for the next fiscal year, he said that it’s possible schools would get less money.
“But those cuts wouldn’t be shutting down schools,” Alfond said. “When you think about trying to create long-term economic development, you need to have educated students. Anytime we make cuts to the system, it’s going to have an effect on how educated our students are.”