Education chief says proposed Medicaid expansion will lead to less funding for Maine schools

Posted Feb. 27, 2014, at 5:49 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 27, 2014, at 6:23 p.m.
Jim Rier
Maine Department of Education
Jim Rier

AUGUSTA, Maine — Education Commissioner Jim Rier has joined the chorus of state department heads who are arguing that Medicaid spending is crowding out important programs that are starved for funding.

In a column posted Thursday on the Department of Education’s website, Rier said the state would be fulfilling its statutory requirement, which is the product of a 2004 citizen-initiated referendum, to fund 55 percent of the total cost of education.

“Were it not for past expansions of the Medicaid program, I believe the state would currently be funding its share of education at 55 percent,” wrote Rier.

Democrats who support Medicaid expansion and officials from education organizations said Rier oversimplified the issue and that pressure on education funding in Maine comes from more than a single program.

“It’s just smoke about issues that aren’t related to education policy,” said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “But I welcome his commitment to get to 55 percent funding for education.”

Rier’s column comes a day after commissioners for the state’s four natural resources agencies held a press conference to argue that Medicaid spending is cannibalizing their departments, as well.

“While we in Augusta have worked toward meeting [the 55 percent] mandate, we have struggled most years to get to even 50 percent,” wrote Rier. “Due to other funding priorities, especially those related to health and human services, the Legislature simply cannot come up with the money. … As our department’s longtime director of school finance and operations and now its commissioner, I can tell you I am deeply concerned about the negative impact to Maine schools of further growing this already unsustainable program.”

Rier wrote that uncertainty around whether the federal government will follow through on its funding promises in the Affordable Care Act — namely that it will fund 100 percent of expansion costs for the first three years and then gradually ramp down to 90 percent — is what causes him concern. According to Rier, the state’s education spending stood at 30 percent or more of the General Fund budget, but has fallen off since the state expanded Medicaid in 2001 and now stands at “an all-time low of 29 percent and falling.” This year, he said, Maine will spend more on health and human services than it provides for educating Maine’s 185,000 public school students.

“While we must continue to deliver on our commitment to caring for our aging population and those with physical and intellectual disabilities, I believe funding locally implemented education should be the top spending priority of state government,” he wrote, adding that the department has already projected a need to cut another $9.5 million in general purpose aid for education in the current fiscal year.

Rier failed to mention that state spending on education has increased over the last decade despite a big drop in the number of K-12 students in Maine. From 2005 through 2012, average per-pupil spending on education in Maine has gone from $9,356 to $11,063. Enrollments in K-12 public schools slipped from more than 208,000 in 2002 to just under 185,000 in 2011.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, said she is disappointed that the Executive Branch is pitting education against social services program because the two are so closely related.

“When we talk about student success, it’s not just about what happens in the schools but also about what’s happening in the homes,” she said. “If we reduce support to single mothers or parents with substance abuse problems, then we will be putting a significant number of our students at risk of achieving education success.”

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said the issue boils down to priorities and cited income tax cuts spearheaded by Republicans and the LePage Administration in 2012 as more of a culprit than past, present or future Medicaid spending.

“The priority of health services for our students and their families isn’t causing the financial problem,” said Kilby-Chesley. “The commissioner and those in the State House who shift the blame to our working families should remember the cuts they have made to benefit Maine’s wealthiest residents. It is time to rethink the income and tax breaks, and other policies that favor the wealthy.”

Rier said if Medicaid expansion becomes law, Maine schools will continue to suffer.

“If Medicaid expansion moves forward as it is currently proposed, Maine will likely never be able to afford its required state share,” he wrote.

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