AUGUSTA — Maine would cut about $9.5 million from schools and slash state funding for early childhood education and immunization programs under a proposal Gov. Paul LePage’s administration presented to lawmakers on Wednesday.
The Republican administration laid out about $35 million in cuts to the $6.3 billion, two-year state budget, after the Legislature ordered it to ensure the state finishes the fiscal year with a balanced budget.
LePage is also seeking to eliminate 97 state government positions and cut $1 million from a state program that provides vaccinations. It would also cut about $500,000 for the Head Start Program, a federal education program for low-income children.
The administration said the goal is to reduce waste and duplication to make state government more efficient. But teachers’ unions and some lawmakers criticized the proposal, saying the cuts could negatively impact families.
The administration can carry out some of the cuts without lawmaker approval, but several of the contentious proposals — such as the education cuts — have to pass the Democratic-controlled Legislature. There is currently $943 million being spent on education in the state’s two-year budget.
“We don’t believe in this environment that students can take another hit,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association.
The administration wants to cut school administrative costs — such as superintendent salaries and office expenses — which are high in Maine compared with the rest of the country, Richard Rosen, the director of the Office of Policy and Management, told the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
But Kilby-Chesley said labeling them as strictly administrative cuts is misleading. Individual school districts decide how to use state funding, so schools are free to choose to cut student services and classroom teachers instead.
“If it’s not the administration that gets cut, it’s going to eventually trickle down, to cascade down to students in the classroom,” she said.
Rosen said public school districts have expanded preschool and kindergarten programs, allowing the state to reduce funding for Head Start, which is getting about $3 million from the state and $32 million from the federal government this fiscal year.
But several lawmakers opposed the Head Start cuts, pointing to the need for strong early childhood education to ensure children are successful later in life.
“For brain development, the most important years are 0 to 3,” said Democratic Rep. Linda Sanborn of Gorham. “We’ve already cut so much from Head Start. They’re already not serving so many kids that qualify for it. … It’s just, again, a very wrong area to cut.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the committee shifted the responsibility for the cuts to the administration rather than identifying savings.
“Lawmakers cannot lay all the blame on the LePage administration when they ran away from making the decisions in the first place,” she said in an email. “There are three choices the lawmakers have now to choose from: make the tough decisions, which require sacrifices, find the magic pot of money, or raise taxes.”
Rosen said the vaccination program has nearly $13 million remaining in the fund, enough to continue even with the reduction.