AUGUSTA, Maine — Spending cut proposals prompted by Gov. Janet Mills due to the coronavirus pandemic would mean a $22.5 million hit for Maine universities, while the state’s campaign finance watchdog will make a relatively easy shift to comply with the mandate.
Wednesday was the deadline for state agencies to respond to the Democratic governor’s early August order to identify 10 percent in cuts for the budget year ending in mid-2021. Those on the highway budget must make 5 percent cuts as Maine faces a projected $1.4 billion revenue shortfall over three years due to the virus-induced recession.
The proposals are drafts to be discussed internally over the next several weeks. Cuts for this year could be quickly implemented, while reductions in future years may come in the next two-year budget. Mills has signaled she would like to avoid cuts to health care and education. That will prove challenging, as those account for most of the state’s $4 billion annual budget.
Most agencies kept their plans under wraps as they were reviewed by Mills’ budget department, which did not allow departments to eliminate entire programs. They may be made public next week. But smaller agencies whose plans were previewed or provided to the Bangor Daily News showed major and mundane ways that different agencies would be affected.
The University of Maine System did not give details of its plan this week, but Ryan Low, a former state budget commissioner who now manages the system’s finances, said he planned to submit 18 separate initiatives, with the biggest being $9 million and the smallest being $3,500.
He did not detail them but characterized them as “painful,” noting the system was already reeling from finalizing a June budget complicated by a $5.7 million revenue shortfall. It faced an estimated $20 million shortfall — or 3.6 percent of its budget — last year in part due to room and board refunds after the virus hit.
“If we were able to cut $22.5 million out of our budget, and it wasn’t a painful exercise, then folks should be questioning whether I’m doing my job properly,” Low said.
Things were not so painful for the Maine Ethics Commission, the state’s campaign finance and lobbying watchdog. It had to shift less than $16,000 used to pay for the costs of three employees to a different funding source, which will not affect positions in the department with a state budget hit of less than $158,000 this year.
At least one agency put money it just received on the block. The bulk of the $7.5 million in proposed cuts at the Maine Community College System came from reductions in capital investment and deferred maintenance, hiring freezes and deferring funding to the system’s benefits fund, according to a plan provided on Wednesday.
But Pam Remieres, the chief financial officer for the Maine Community College System, highlighted one proposal to reduce a workforce training program by $250,000. An emergency spending package passed early in the pandemic by the Legislature gave the system $2.5 million in one-time funding to help with virus-related training.
“We do so reluctantly, because although we are in a financial emergency, it is clear that training and educational programming is helping Maine’s economy recover from the economic fallout that came from COVID-19,” Remieres wrote in her proposal.