AUGUSTA — The University of Maine System would be required to spend more money on classroom instruction, get $2 million in one-time funds for marketing and recruitment, and face auditing by the state’s watchdog agency under several university-related bills before the Legislature’s education committee Monday.

Almost all of the bills are focused on the financial challenges faced by the University of Maine System and college affordability.

Other higher-education bills before the committee Monday would:

n Increase Maine State Grant awards to $2,500 for first-year students, and increase them by $1,000 a year up to $5,500 for fourth-year students. (L.D. 627)

n Direct the state’s finance authority to issue a $40 million revenue bond so Maine college graduates could refinance private student loan debt. (L.D. 784)

n Create a unified board of higher education to provide governance for the university and community college systems. (L.D. 393)

The University of Maine System has had years of deep cuts and multimillion-dollar deficits, which officials attribute to flat state funding, declining enrollment and three years of tuition freezes.

University officials plan to use $9 million in emergency reserves to balance the system’s $519 million budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. Last year’s $529 million system budget required using $11.4 million in emergency funds and cutting 157 positions.

“It’s clear we as a Legislature have failed the University of Maine System as we have cut and cut and cut funding,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who sponsored two of the bills. One bill, L.D. 18, calls on the Legislature’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to audit the system finances. Russell said that was necessary because there has been disagreement on “the common set of facts.”

Critics have said the university has overstated the need for cuts and could avoid a crisis by making different spending decisions.

However, the normal process for an OPEGA review is to ask the legislative Government Oversight Committee to consider the request. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, chairman of that committee, said Monday that legislation requiring a review circumvents their bipartisan review and ability to set priorities.

Russell’s other bill, L.D. 19, earmarks General Fund money to restore program and faculty cuts.

“I am hearing right and left that students are not able to get into their courses because of the cuts,” Russell said. With fewer students in classes, and not entering certain majors, “it’s a downward death spiral.”

Several students and faculty members spoke in support of Russell’s bills, saying the cuts needed to be restored. The University of Southern Maine eliminated 51 faculty positions and five academic programs in the last year to help close a $16 million budget gap.

“The message which many of my fellow students have received is that their educations and futures simply do not matter,” USM senior Martha Smith said.

Chancellor James Page said the system’s financial gap is structural, and restoring the cuts would simply postpone them.

“We are wrongly sized, wrongly positioned and wrongly organized to sustain our current cost structure,” he said, noting that the system is undergoing streamlining and an academic review.

State funding for the system may increase this year. Gov. Paul LePage’s budget calls for boosting state funding by 1.7 percent, to $179.2 million, for the fiscal year ending June 2016, and by 1.93 percent, to $182.6 million, for the next fiscal year. That’s about half of what the system requested. Several other bills before the Appropriations Committee also add funding for the system or certain programs.

Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, said his bill, L.D. 794, would require the system to increase classroom instruction funding from the current 27 percent of operating expenses to 40 percent by 2018.

“We all, including the Legislature, need to be involved in turning things around and keeping our university system strong,” Chipman said. “Given the amount of funding allocated every year to the University of Maine System from the state budget, the Legislature has an obligation to make sure this funding is spent efficiently.”

The committee plans to hold work sessions on the higher education bills later this week.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]


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