AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Education Committee recommended increasing education funding by some $30 million over Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal Wednesday, though members of the budget committee countered by asking that they find a way to fund the recommendations or at least set priorities.
The majority of the proposed increase in funding was the result of an analysis by Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, which found that state funding falls $22 million short of covering Essential Programs and Services, which is the state’s own minimum school funding guidelines.
Among the major disagreements the Education Committee had with LePage was the governor’s proposal to pass half of teacher retirement costs to local school districts at a cost of $14 million. The committee also wants to increase general purpose aid to education, which provides the majority of funding for local school districts, by about $22 million above LePage’s proposal.
Education Committee Senate Chairwoman Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, estimated that these recommendations, along with some smaller tweaks, would increase education funding by approximately $30 million in the first year of the next budget biennium, which begins July 1.
“We feel we’ve presented a budget that includes an appropriate level of education funding,” said Millett.
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said she saw the Education Committee’s recommendations as evidence that lawmakers agree that education funding in the state has sunk to a level that can’t sustain minimum programs and services.
“It is encouraging to see money being put back into our public schools,” said Kilby-Chesley in a prepared statement. “While we are still far from reaching the voter mandate to pay for 55 percent of the total cost of public education, this funding at least moves us in the right direction.”
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, House chairman of the Education Committee, said the committee’s recommendation to increase education subsidies was an attempt to move toward the state funding at least 55 percent of the cost of education as outlined in the state’s Essential Programs and Services formula, a provision enacted by voters in a 2004 referendum. Since that became law, the Legislature has never provided 55 percent funding for education and this year is paying for about 45 percent of the cost of Essential Programs and Services. The bulk of the remainder of education funding is paid through local property tax collections.
“We’re trying to avoid pushing costs down to the local level and have the state pay for what the state should be paying for,” said MacDonald.
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the ranking Republican on the Education Committee, who along with some of the others on the committee voted against some of the new proposed spending, said it wasn’t because they didn’t agree with it.
“We wholeheartedly support the idea of funding education at 55 percent,” said Langley. “We didn’t feel at this time that the funding exists to do that.”
Members of the Appropriations Committee, which is in the midst of monthslong deliberations over LePage’s budget proposal, said the Education Committee’s recommendations put them in a tough spot.
Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, said the Education Committee isn’t the only policy committee that has requested funding above what LePage has proposed.
“We’ve been receiving report back after report back with money being put back into a budget that’s already strapped,” he said. “It puts us in a difficult position.”
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, agreed.
“Any additional information about priorities within this funding would be welcome,” she said. “Otherwise we’re left to make that decision ourselves.”
There were other areas where the Education Committee voted to increase funding for local schools by opposing LePage initiatives. The committee unanimously opposed a proposal in the budget to use $1 million worth of education funding to create a legal defense fund for the Department of Education, the State Board of Education and the Maine Charter School Commission.
The committee also voted against the state decreasing special education funding and a Department of Education initiative to spend $1.5 million in a school improvement grant program.
“While the committee members generally support these school improvement efforts, the proposed language does not provide sufficient detail as to how those funds would be utilized,” reads a budget document generated by the Education Committee.
Asked what her top priority is among the new spending initiatives proposed by the Education Committee, Millett identified increasing school subsidies.
“That is the critical piece,” she said.