AUGUSTA — Teases of legislation and political fights to come, along with a mid-day demonstration by progressive groups, took over the halls of the State House, where official business on Tuesday consisted of quick morning sessions and committee work.
But two large announcements loomed over the State House.
On Wednesday, Democratic leaders in both houses are scheduled to announce the party’s legislative priorities.
Ericka Dodge, spokeswoman for the Maine Senate Democrats, said their plans will be aimed at establishing a “returned focus on strengthening our economy, putting people back to work, and growing the middle class.”
And on Friday, Gov. Paul LePage is expected to release his proposed budget for the next two-year budget cycle, beginning this spring, said spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
State government, though, is facing budget issues for the current two-year budget cycle.
“There are difficult decisions ahead of us,” Bennett said. “At the end of the day, we have multiple budget shortfalls to deal with. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring a budget.”
Also slated for Friday is a proposed supplemental budget to close a more-than-$100 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services that was announced by Commissioner Mary Mayhew in November. It was blamed on higher-than-expected spending on MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program.
“It’s clear that DHHS is a financial problem for us every year and we need to solve that,” said David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine House Republicans, who added that he thought Democrats and Republicans could find common ground on that and fixing the “skills gap” — a theory that employers have jobs, but the state doesn’t have sufficient workers with the skill sets to fill them.
And to balance the current state budget for the two-year cycle ending this spring, the LePage administration has proposed $35.5 million in cuts. Of those proposed cuts, more than $12 million is slated for general purpose aid to K-12 schools.
That rankled Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley, who headlined a Tuesday morning press conference. They protested that part of the curtailment and the state’s failure since 2004 to work up to meeting a voter-mandated 55 percent funding threshold for K-12 education outlined as goal by state government in the 1980s.
Brennan said Portland schools’ share of the cuts will be $870,000.
“So I either have to go back and look at increasing property taxes, or we have to cut services, lay off teachers, furlough teachers and look at ways that we will cut education programming that is critical to our students,” Brennan said. He proposed the Legislature use $6 million in money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to offset education’s share of the curtailment order.
At that press conference, Rep. James Campbell, I-West Newfield, said he’s submitted a bill that would appropriate General Fund and revenue from the state’s share of money from the Oxford casino to push the state to that 55 percent threshold.
According to a graphic in the Maine Townsman, the state’s share hovered around 45 percent in fiscal year 2012 and tracked slightly upward the next fiscal year. Campbell said that bill would provide K-12 education more than $83 million in fiscal year 2014 and more than $99 million in fiscal year 2015.
“I’m looking out for our teachers, our students and our school systems,” Campbell said in an interview. “I didn’t put this in for anybody for myself.”
Kilby-Chesley lambasted LePage at the conference, addressing him by saying “you berate our schools; you verbally attack our educators; you beat down the students in our schools.”
“You need to ask yourself is this what our Maine students deserve?” she said.
LePage has worked to raise funding for K-12 education before, proposing a $63 million increase in the two-year budget passed in 2011.
“We would all like to keep school funding whole,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “But when you have a $35 million hole in state government and education is 40 percent of (spending), how in the world can you leave education out of it?”
Connerty-Marin said K-12 education received a $27 million curtailment in 2008. It got a $38 million hit in 2009, he said.
“This could have been considerably worse,” he said.
The loudest event of the day was a joint demonstration by progressive groups, organized under the banner of the Alliance for the Common Good.
Music from Alamoosic Lake, an Indian Island-based Native American singing and drumming band, held the crowd’s attention until Lew Kingsbury of Pittston, an organizer of the Occupy Augusta movement, rallied the crowd with a megaphone in front of signs that said “No East West Corridor” and “Money Out of Politics.”
While views ran the gamut from the anti-establishment — Bruce Gagnon of Bath said “corporations have been very astute” at taking over both Republican and Democratic parties to peoples’ detriment — Kingsbury said he’s encouraged by rising leaders in the Democratic Party.
He hopes they won’t “buckle to a bullish governor” with veto power.
“This is the best I have felt about Maine politics in a long time,” he said.
Michael Shepherd — 370-7652