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LePage Issues Sudden, Sweeping Budget Change Package

With the end of the session in sight, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee had hoped to wrap up work on a two-year state budget next week. But Gov. Paul LePage has just handed them an extra assignment, in the form of a 133-page change package. It contains several major proposals that lawmakers are just now seeing for the first time.

Usually, a change package fixes mistakes in a budget plan, and may have one or two new initiatives. But the LePage document is more sweeping: It proposes only partial funding for state aid to county jails, for the Downeast Correctional Center and indigent legal services, and calls for studies to be done on all three issues. The administration would report those findings to the Legislature just two weeks before the funding for the programs would run out.

Republican state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta says that’s not an acceptable way to manage legal services for the poor, which he says are a constitutional responsibility. He says at a minimum, the state needs to fund the program for a full two years and appropriate money to pay bills already owed.

“We will appropriate money for the rest of this fiscal year through June 30, because lawyers are now working and not getting paid, and secondly we will fund it at whatever level we believe is appropriate for the entire biennium to fulfill this constitutional responsibility,” he says.

Others on the committee say that funding for county jails and the Downeast Correctional Center should to be appropriated, even if the Legislature changes its plans for either next year.

The governor’s change package also proposes to allow more charter schools and to shift money from general purpose aid to local schools to the university or community college systems. He wants that money to pay for the cost of remedial courses for students who are attending a university or community college.

Democratic state Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook, who co-chairs the committee, says such major policy shifts do not belong in a change package.

“I don’t think it is really very reasonable to expect that the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is the right committee to be looking at that, and certainly not the right committee to looking at something that makes such fundamental changes in education policy,” he says.

Several committee members expressed concerns about even trying to consider adding such proposals to a budget that is already chock full of controversy. Some big basic issues, such as the overall level of school funding and taxes to pay for schools and other programs, are far from settled, and current funding for state government runs out at the end of June.

This story was originally published on May 26, 2017 at 4:45 p.m. ET.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.