AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislative Council on Thursday rejected a bid by University of Southern Maine students to force the Legislature to temporarily halt budget cuts at University of Maine campuses.

The emergency bill, sponsored by Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, would have instituted a one-year moratorium on layoffs and other budget cuts by the university system, retroactive to March 1 of this year. The bill called for the creation of a stakeholders group of students and faculty to study the university system’s finances and make recommendations during the moratorium.

However, because Chipman and the students developed the bill in recent days — long past the deadline for the submission of bills in the current legislative session — its fate lay in the hands of the 10-member group of legislative leaders who make up the Legislative Council. They voted 6-4 Thursday afternoon to reject the bill.

“There’s a crisis right now in our public university system,” said Chipman to the council. “Students and faculty are asking for our help, and I propose that we address this crisis now.”

University officials say the cuts are necessary because revenues and student population counts have declined in recent years. Earlier this month, Chancellor James Page told lawmakers that the cuts would continue, including the elimination of up to 165 positions in the fiscal year that begins in July. Some of those cuts have been announced in recent weeks, though they’re all subject to approval by the university system’s trustees.

Page has also said more position cuts, possibly numbering in the hundreds, could be in store through 2019. University officials have scheduled meetings Friday to discuss how the revenue problem will affect operations at the flagship campus in Orono.

Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland, who voted to advance the bill, said he was impressed to see students engaged in the welfare of the public education system.

“It really puts a lot of emphasis and spotlight on what state government has done and hasn’t done in the past decade when it comes to higher education,” said Alfond.

Along with Alfond, Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Anne Haskell, D-Portland; and House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, supported moving the bill forward.

Legislative Council members who opposed moving the bill for consideration by the full Legislature, including House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, argued that lawmakers would be overstepping their authority if they interjected themselves into the university system’s budget deliberations at this late juncture. The university system must prepare a new budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn late next month.

University student activists, who have formed a group called #UMaineFuture, said the council’s vote won’t deter them from trying to fend off the cuts.

“Whether or not the Legislative Council agreed or disagreed with [Chipman’s bill], either outcome works for us,” said Shannon Brennan, an organizer from #UMaineFuture, in a prepared statement. “If they don’t want to make it a legislative issue, then we’ll make it an election issue.”

An affiliated student group, #USMFuture, announced that members would meet at noon Friday on the USM campus to strategize for a statewide campaign.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.