LePage proposes taking money from education aid for legal defense

Gov. Paul LePage answers questions from reporters following his education summit at Cony High School in Augusta on Friday, March 22, 2013.
Gov. Paul LePage answers questions from reporters following his education summit at Cony High School in Augusta on Friday, March 22, 2013.
Posted April 09, 2013, at 6:55 p.m.
Last modified April 09, 2013, at 7:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Two legislative committees have rejected two proposals by Gov. Paul LePage to create a total of $1.3 million in legal defense funds.

On Monday, the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted 10-2 against a $1 million provision in LePage’s biennial budget proposal which would have taken money from general purpose aid for education to create a legal defense fund for the state Board of Education, the Department of Education and the Maine Charter School Commission.

On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 7-6 against another LePage proposal to set aside $300,000 for legal defense of the governor’s office, according to the committee’s analyst.

The votes essentially constitute recommendations to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, which has final say on the two-year spending package it will eventually forward to the full Legislature.

“State resources are scarce enough,” said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who chairs the Education Committee. “We should be putting money into our classrooms and not giving it to lawyers.”

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, Senate chairwoman of the Education Committee, agreed, according to a statement released Monday.

“The bipartisan vote today is a clear statement that the Education Committee doesn’t accept the administration’s argument that these funds are necessary or are best allocated to unknown phantom legal costs,” said Millett.

Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said Tuesday that LePage attempted to set up the $1 million fund to protect Maine’s 2-year-old law that allows the creation of charter schools.

“We all agree that money is better spent in the classroom than in the courtroom,” said Bennett. “We are only compelled to go this route because public dollars are currently being spent to challenge charter schools.”

Bennett and Attorney General Janet Mills both said Tuesday that they are unaware of any lawsuits pending against the Board of Education, the Department of Education or the Maine Charter School Commission. However, Bennett provided a copy of testimony delivered to the Education Committee on April 1 by Superintendent Kenneth Coville of RSU 74 in Somerset County. In the written testimony, Coville argues that the state’s charter school law is inconsistent with Maine’s constitution.

Lisa Grover, senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said Tuesday that lawsuits against charter schools or the laws that make them possible — as well as lawsuits levied by charter schools themselves — are not uncommon. She said there was a rash of lawsuits in the mid-1990s when many states were implementing charter school laws. Grover said those suits “were all beaten back.” A second wave of lawsuits came about a decade later as charter schools began to contest their funding formulas.

“The charter schools tended to win those lawsuits around the funding piece,” said Grover.

Last year in Georgia, according to Grover, the state supreme court ruled that the state’s charter commission was not constitutional, but voters later changed the Georgia constitution to uphold the commission’s authority.

Grover said her organization views Maine’s law as one of the top two in the country because of its similarity to what she called the “model charter school law.”

“I often give other states a copy of Maine’s law and say, ‘If you really want to do it right, here’s a law I suggest you write,” she said. “It’s seen as a model for the country. Out of all the laws in the country there are no perfect laws.”

In a separate matter, Judiciary Committee members voted 7-6 Tuesday against a provision in the budget proposal that would have transferred $300,000 “from the attorney general program to the office of the governor for legal contingencies in which the attorney general declines to represent the state,” according to the biennial budget document.

The vote was along party lines except for Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland, who voted with Republicans in the minority, according to Judiciary Committee analyst Margaret Reinsch.

“The attorney general represents the state and governor regardless of political party,” said Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in a prepared statement. “The governor’s budget proposal to cut funds from that office undercuts the law and is completely unnecessary.”

Bennett declined to provide details about what the fund would cover. Mills said Tuesday afternoon that she didn’t know what the genesis of either legal fund proposal was.

“Nobody from the governor’s office was at the committee to justify this transfer,” said Mills, who added that the lost funding could have severe consequences on her office’s ability to function. “Nobody has talked to me about either of these proposals. We work with all the agencies in the state, including the governor’s office, to the best of our ability.”

Mills said that according to statute, the attorney general must personally approve the hiring of private attorneys or legal experts on behalf of any state agency.

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