AUGUSTA (AP) – Completing a compromise that did not always look likely, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee sealed a deal Thursday on more than $6.3 billion in General Fund spending for the two years beginning July 1.

Panelists approved a final round of expenditures totaling about $20 million, with $5 million going to slightly temper a pending tuition increase at the University of Maine System and another $3 million earmarked for a 500-student expansion within the Maine Community College System.

“So, we’re done. We’re done,” Democratic Sen. Margaret Rotundo of Lewiston, a co-chairman of the committee, said after the last 13-0 vote in late afternoon.

Debate in the full Legislature is expected to begin Monday, when the focus is likely to be the panel’s reworking of Gov. John Baldacci’s original plan for consolidating Maine’s sprawling network of local school systems.

Lawmakers on the Appropriations panel and within the Legislature’s rank and file suggest that sentiment on that issue, which has been widely varied to date, could determine the fate of the budget package as long as the package contains the education component.

Baldacci’s original proposal was to establish 26 regional education units, a significant reduction from Maine’s current 152 school administrative systems.

The revised plan prepared for inclusion in the budget envisions 80 units, based on desired student populations of at least 2,500.

Exceptions would be available, but sanctions could face non-complying communities. The budget package counts approximately $36.5 million in savings.

Local reorganization plans would be subject to voter approval.

Units that vote against reorganization would face penalties starting on July 1, 2009, including a loss of minimum subsidies, an increase in required mill rates and less favorable consideration in approval and funding for school construction projects.

An additional $5 million for the University of Maine System would bring the total increase in system funding for the upcoming biennium to $19.3 million and justify a reduction in higher tuitions from 12.6 percent to less than 10 percent, majority Democrats said in an analysis of late budget action.

Another $3 million for community colleges would bring the total funding increase for the next two years to $11 million, the analysis said.

About half of the funding for the final add-backs is to come from subjecting enterprises known as captive insurance companies – usually a wholly owned subsidiary of a corporation not in the insurance business, according to state tax officials – to the state corporate income tax.

Service cuts, funding transfers and numerous other budgetary initiatives are designed to balance the overall package while dispensing with a Baldacci proposal for $136 million in new tobacco levies.

The basis for a final deal was established a week ago when committee negotiators and House and Senate leaders struck a general agreement.

Republican Sen. Karl Turner of Cumberland on Thursday praised Rotundo and House committee Chairman Jeremy Fischer, D-Presque Isle, for being “always constructive” in leading panelists through their deliberations.

The final committee package includes more than $3.7 million for the state share of disaster relief related to spring floods, $2.8 million for nursing homes and home-based care and $1.9 million for initiatives addressing domestic violence, according to a committee staff tally.

To take effect by the July 1 beginning of a new fiscal year, the package would need to win super-majorities of at least two-thirds in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Approval by lesser majorities would mean that the legislation would not become law until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns. Statutory adjournment date, which remains a target, is June 20.

AP-ES-05-31-07 1657EDT


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