AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Education Committee rejected a series of bills Wednesday afternoon that sought to reverse recent cuts to programs and budgets in the University of Maine System.
UMaine System Chancellor James Page said after the votes that he was relieved that lawmakers recognize that there is no short-term fix to what is a decidedly long-term problem.
“We appreciate the Legislature’s support for the university system, their support for the changes we’re trying to accomplish and their partnership in working with us at the appropriate levels,” said Page. “The outcome today was I think the appropriate one.”
Three of the bills rejected Wednesday would have provided short-term funding for either the system as a whole or the University of Southern Maine particularly. Some of the other bills called for audits of the system’s finances or would put new controls in place to ensure the system’s funding is used efficiently.
Wednesday’s votes won’t sit well with some students and faculty who have been advocating passionately since last year to avoid cuts to faculty and programs. The system announced last year that it faces a $90 million funding gap over the next five years.
In the end, several Republicans and Democrats on the Education Committee agreed that the problem plaguing the university system is a chronic pattern of underfunding from the state coupled with decreasing enrollments and aging infrastructure.
“We have not really taken care of our higher education institutions in any way at all,” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, co-chairman of the Education Committee. “Flat-funding them really means defunding them year after year. … Every one of these bills comes out of frustration. I never felt our role was micromanaging jobs, administrations and campuses.”
Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, said he’s hopeful that the leaders of the system, including Page, are on the right track to overcoming financial problems.
“Back five years ago, I probably would have jumped on board with some of this stuff,” said McClellan. “We’re seeing the changes we want to see and we’re hearing what we want to hear at this point. It’s slow to move a dinosaur. Obviously we need to keep track of this and watch it as the years go by.”
Cuts in the university system have led to protests by students and faculty, particularly at USM. Last year, a group of USM students tried to introduce an emergency bill that would have put a one-year moratorium on the implementation of cuts in the system. That bill failed.
The university funding-related bills rejected Wednesday included LD 17, LD 18, LD 42, LD 99, LD 794 and LD 939. The committee votes against the bills — which were not 100 percent complete Wednesday evening because some members were absent — were all unanimous.