January 9, 2013

Protest, promises of future friction greet legislators on first day of session

Democrats to announce priorities on Wednesday; governor pitches biennial budget, DHHS supplemental spending plan on Friday

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Lew Kingsbury, of Pittston, holds up a megaphone after giving a speech on the steps in the Hall of Flags of the State House in Augusta on Tuesday. The Alliance for Common Good, featuring members of 20 interest groups, joined together for to hold a "Rally of Unity" on Tuesday January 8, 2013 in the State House's Hall of Flags in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

The Alliance for Common Good, featuring members of 20 groups, joined together for to hold a "Rally of Unity" on Tuesday in the State House's Hall of Flags in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Crow Suncloud, bottom left, plays drum leading a group singing Wabanaki Confederacy songs on Tuesday in the State House's Hall of Flags in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan


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