AUGUSTA — With the clock ticking, state lawmakers on the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee went back to work to close an estimated $118 million state budget gap Monday.
Lawmakers are running out of time on the bill, which needs to balance the state's budget for the current fiscal year, ending in June.
So far, the committee has voted only unanimous items in response to a state spending curtailment order and supplemental budget proposal issued by Gov. Paul LePage. The spending curtailment amounts to about $35 million of the gap, according to legislative documents.
"It's down to the sticky wickets now," said Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, shortly after the committee adjourned temporarily Monday so members could join their respective political parties to caucus. Carey, a committee member, said, while the committee has been able to make unanimous, bipartisan votes so far, things were going to get more difficult in the next few days.
"The decisions are very, very difficult when changes have to be made this late in the fiscal year," Carey said. "It's going to affect people's lives, so the choices are always difficult."
Legislative leaders had hoped to vote the supplemental budget out of committee and send it to House and Senate chambers for a final vote last week but were delayed because of the blizzard, committee co-chairwoman Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said Monday.
One issue that remains contentious is a proposal that some of LePage's spending cuts be applied to the newly formed charter schools. Democrats have argued that leaving the state's two charter schools immune to the reductions, even though the cut would amount to only $5,100 is unfair.
On Monday, Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Reir explained to the committee what a uniform cut to all of the schools receiving public funds in Maine, including a reduction in the tuition amount paid by public schools to each other and private academies for students that don't attend in a local district schools – would have.
Reir said applying the cuts proportionately to all schools wouldn't impact the overall bottom line of the state's budget but it would mean lower tuition reimbursements for schools. That option would cost private schools in Maine an estimated $265,000.
If applied evenly, the cut would also reduce spending at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics by $15, 150 and to the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf by $34,462. The state's Jobs for Maine's Graduates program would also stand to lose just over $14,000.
Rotundo seemed cautiously optimistic that the committee would continue its work with bipartisan and unanimous votes, but agreed with her colleague from Lewiston that the choices were getting more difficult.
"The choices that have been presented to us are very difficult ones," Rotundo said. "It's a budget that contains cuts and choices that we would not have made, but it's what we are dealing with now. We've worked very hard to restore the cuts we felt were too severe."
Rotundo, who has worked on numerous state budgets, said the process was moving along as well as could be expected and the bill should be ready for floor votes by the end of the week.
David Sorensen, the communications director for House Republicans, said Monday work on the supplemental budget would move faster if Democrats on the committee were not trying to make a political statement about charter schools.
"Are they going to take a look at every line item in the budget that's less than $10,000 and have a debate on those as well?" Sorensen asked.
Lawmakers were hoping to settle the supplemental budget for the current fiscal year by mid-February so they would have plenty of time to dig into LePage's $6.3 billion proposal for the state's next two-year budget cycle, which starts on July 1.
That bill also includes several controversial spending cuts and proposals as well, including the elimination of state revenue sharing with towns and municipalities.