August 24, 2019
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Schools may take brunt of cuts as state tries to balance budget

AUGUSTA, Maine — Whether local schools should share the burden of budget cuts is splitting the task force charged with finding $25 million in spending reductions to balance the two-year state budget in its second year.

“We are very concerned that we will be cut,” Maureen King, President of the Maine School Boards Association said. “We have been cut several times in recent years in the middle of the school year and that is just devastating.”

She said school board members across the state are aware of the state and federal government’s fiscal problems. She said no one would be surprised if the state reduces aid to local schools.

“But, I would be disappointed,” she said, “We still are not at the 55 percent level that was promised years ago.”

King said any cut or reduction in expected state aid will mean schools must cut programs, or raise local property taxes. She said many have been increasing taxes in recent years because of less aid from the state which is distributed by a “flawed” formula.

The state’s higher education facilities, the University of Maine System, the community colleges and the Maine Maritime Academy are targeted to lose about $6.8 million in funding under a proposal before the governor’s Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force.

“I think General Purpose Aid [to education] has to be part of this discussion,” said Ryan Low, vice chairman of the task force. He is vice president for finance at the University of Maine at Farmington and a former state finance commissioner. “That is 30 percent of the state budget that is being taken off the table.”

He proposed GPA be reduced by $4 million in the second year of the budget, with higher education cut by $2.8 million. The motion failed on a six to six vote. The panel also rejected other proposals that were variations of Low’s motion and delayed a decision on GPA until a later meeting.

“GPA is scheduled to go up by $15 million in the second year so this is really a reduction in the increase,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. He also serves on the Appropriations Committee.

But others on the panel are strongly opposed to any change in aid to local education. Joe Bruno, CEO of Community Pharmacies and a former House GOP floor leader, said a cut in GPA has a broad effect.

“GPA affects everyone in this state, every property tax payer in this state is impacted by a GPA cut and their taxes will have to increase at the local level,” he said. “I would rather have a narrow impact.”

Bruno said it is clear there will be an impact on the higher education facilities from the proposed cuts, but its impact is not as broad as GPA. He said the magnitude of the cuts on higher education is small, he said about a one percent cut in the University of Maine System budget.

Martin responded the proposed $4 million cut to local schools was far less than one percent and would be spread across all school districts in the state. He said the GPA appropriation in the second year of the budget is $914 million.

“I think this is something that we have to look at,” said David Flanagan, President of Preservation Management and the former President of Central Maine Power and a member of the task force.

Phil Harriman, a financial consultant and former state senator, was uncomfortable with considering the GPA cut. He argued it was beyond the scope of the task force.

“We are supposed to be looking at ways to streamline government and make it more efficient and provide some savings,” he said. “This is just another cut.”

But Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, agreed that there is a broad impact by reducing aid to schools. He said although it should not be considered as part of the $25 million budget target of the task force, it will likely have to be considered by the legislature in January because of expected federal cuts.

“We will be looking at cuts significantly greater than this exercise,” He said, “That’s why I supported what the governor said that we should be looking at $100 million.”

Keschl said Congress will make huge cuts in federal spending that will affect the states as they seek to reduce the federal budget deficit. He expects the Appropriations Committee will have to look at not only cuts in local school aid, but further cuts in programs already targeted for reductions by the task force.

Congress has until just before Christmas to act on whatever proposals the so-called super committee recommends next month. If Congress does not accept those recommendations, across the board cuts take effect automatically. Estimates are Maine could lose from $75 to $125 million in federal funds a year depending on congressional action.

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