BY ANN S. KIM

The Portland Press Herald

State officials and legal experts said Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t have the power to close the state’s schools — something he said he’d do May 1 if the Legislature doesn’t accept spending cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services budget.

Even fellow Republicans said Friday they don’t think LePage means he literally will shut the schools down.

“Right now, in order to continue the way we are, I will close schools May 1 and use that money, because that’s where we are,” LePage said in an appearance Thursday night in Lewiston. “It’s a matter of not having money. It’s not a matter of policy. It’s a matter of when you have $100 in your checkbook and you’re spending 200, you’ve got a problem.”

LePage made the remarks during one of his Capitol for a Day events. The context was his proposal to drop 65,000 people from MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, to close a projected shortfall of $221 million in the DHHS over the next 18 months.

The governor’s office did not return calls Friday seeking clarification of his comments.

At least two things — the Legislature’s control over public education funding and a state law mandating a minimum number of school days per year — would prevent the governor from closing the schools.

The Maine Constitution is clear that the authority to fund public education lies with the Legislature, said Rep. Margaret Rotundo of Lewiston, who is the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

“My understanding is that the Legislature would have to pass legislation not to fund the schools and that’s not going to happen. It’s just not going to happen. So people don’t have to worry about the schools closing,” Rotundo said.

A governor can never take unilateral action to amend a budget already adopted by the Legislature, said Orlando Delogu, an emeritus professor at the University of Maine School of Law.

“I don’t think he has any legal power to close schools. I don’t think he has any legal authority to close colleges. I think what he can do is threaten and tinker with state appropriations for the K-through-12 systems, to the universities and the community colleges — but that would require legislative approval. Unilaterally, he can’t reduce those budgets,” said Delogu, who has worked on state and local tax policies.

State law mandates a minimum of 175 instructional days per school year, although districts can seek waivers from the education commissioner because of snow days, emergencies or other extenuating circumstances.

Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, believes a change in state law would be needed to reduce the minimum number of days. He doesn’t think the education commissioner has the authority to initiate a lower number across the state.

“If that were going to be adjusted on a statewide basis to close schools starting May 1, I think the first and foremost question is, ‘Legally, how would that happen?'” Douglass said. “Now that the proposal is out there, I think the governor’s office and the commissioner’s office would want to explain that.”

Members of the LePage administration and fellow Republicans said they did not expect schools to close.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Education Department, interpreted LePage’s remarks to mean that education could be a target if the cuts aren’t made in other areas. Connerty-Marin said he was not speaking on behalf of the governor.

“It seems pretty clear we have a budget crisis, and (DHHS) is 40 percent of the budget, education is 40 percent of the budget. If you’re going to make cuts, we’re vulnerable. If you can’t make them in one place, you’ve got to make them in another,” he said.

Sen. Brian Langley, an Ellsworth Republican who co-chairs the Education Committee, interpreted LePage’s comments to mean that the state eventually could run out of money, given the $221 million shortfall.

“My personal opinion is we would not be closing the schools, saying, ‘You must close your doors.’ I don’t think that’s the way it was intended,” Langley said.

Senate President Kevin Raye, a Perry Republican, said there would be dire consequences if the state ran out of money, but that the Legislature would not let that happen.

“I just think it’s a reminder of the critical importance of getting this done,” Raye said of LePage’s statement. “Certainly it’s a stark reminder. I think it’s the governor’s way of telegraphing how important this is.”

Neither Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, nor Dan Billings, his chief counsel, returned phone calls Friday. The governor’s office did, however, issue a news release late Friday afternoon that said LePage discussed the DHHS shortfall with legislative leaders, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett. The release said LePage is now hopeful that Democrats and Republicans could reach a resolution by Feb. 1.

“We had a positive conversation this morning about the dangers of delay and I think we’re moving in the right direction. However, in order to solve this budget crisis we cannot use gimmicks to fill the hole. There will be difficult decisions made, and if we are to bring our welfare system to a manageable level that Maine can afford we must make the necessary structural changes,” LePage said in the statement.

The release did not mention the governor’s earlier remarks about closing schools.