Budget work can not be done under threat

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Cheers to school administrators across Maine for pulling up their sleeves, sharpening their pencils and whittling budgets to meet the expectation of less school funding as the state braces for curtailment cuts.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t painless.

And, it was a chore done with great concern but little complaint.

That’s an admirable attitude as we face across-state-government budget cuts.

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Gov. Paul LePage — borrowing a play from Gov. John Baldacci — signed a hefty curtailment order late last month that is now before the Legislature. It is an order legislators have the authority to make adjustments to, and there is a chance the balance of cuts may shift between the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services and other affected agencies based on a review by Appropriations. But, the reality is that Maine must cut $35.5 million from its budget and it must be done now.

And, that’s not all.

On Thursday, members of the Appropriations Committee heard from agency directors and others how their work will be impacted by the curtailment order. They talked passionately about how the cuts will limit programs and hurt students, how families who adopt their foster children will receive less financial support, and how people who are already struggling will struggle even more.

That’s all true, but what choice remains?

On Friday, LePage issued a statement saying Maine is in a fiscal crisis. That’s not a new situation, but the threat of cuts makes it more widely recognized.

“Maine’s economic security and future is at stake and we must make hard choices so we do not leave our children with unmanageable debt,” he said in a press release.

He wasn’t referencing the curtailment order, but his two-year budget proposal was released Friday.

It’s a budget that includes another $100 million in cuts, including the loss of 200 state government jobs, removing a collection of tax exemptions and recommending a two-year freeze on state revenue sharing reimbursements to municipalities. All very painful options for taxpayers.

No state agency will be spared cuts, which means Mainers will see fewer services and more financial burden will fall on municipalities, including schools and general assistance offices. So, while the state may not be considering tax hikes, there will certainly be pressure to increase property taxes to meet local school and county assessments.

This is truly a “we’re all in this together” situation as public officials work to pay the public’s bills while also maintaining what LePage, legislators and others agree is a necessary safety net for the neediest among us.

What we’re seeing in our schools is a willingness to get that work done, as administrators have instituted spending and hiring freezes in the face of immediate curtailment cuts and are planning for the likelihood they will get fewer General Purpose Aid to Education dollars in the future.

In SAD 17, the focus is on the 2013-14 budget because the district had budgeted $100,000 in contingency funds to meet anticipated curtailments in the current year, but most other districts have been forced to make immediate cuts while also starting to consider cuts in the upcoming budget cycle.

In RSU 9, Superintendent Mike Cormier said Wednesday that the anticipated $135,000 in lost state assistance — or 0.5 percent of the district’s total budget — will be made up by cutting supplies and other needs, but the district can’t afford to trim costs associated with its current search for a new superintendent because that search is so important to the district.

These are the pressure-packed choices our schools are making with great thought and purpose.

So, enough with the threats already.

Before LePage had even finished making his budget presentation to Appropriations Friday, the Maine People’s Alliance issued a statement on what it termed an “unconscionable” budget. And, in a threat squarely aimed at Democratic lawmakers, warned that “any Democrat who voted for these kinds of cuts, without first making sure the wealthy pay their fair share, would face a primary challenge next year.”

For some Democrats, elected to their first term in office, working under this threat is not at all helpful or fair.

Gov. LePage did not, as MPA alleges, “create a false crisis.”

This is very real. And very difficult. And very emotional.

Let’s follow school administrators’ lead and get the work done, without the histrionics.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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