AUGUSTA (AP) – With a few strokes of his trademark recycled-wood pens, Gov. John Baldacci signed a $6.3 billion state budget he said gives Maine its most far-reaching law to reorganize public education in half a century.

Leading a celebration of the passage of the two-year spending plan, the governor thanked and re-thanked a long list of legislators from both parties who helped to fashion the General Fund budget that includes plans for a sweeping reorganization of Maine’s network of school systems.

It consolidates Maine’s 152 school administrative systems to 80 in the biggest public school system reorganization since the Sinclair Act of 1957, which set off a decade-long process of consolidation of Maine school districts.

With the new budget enacted, Baldacci said it’s now time to “engage our communities” in a consolidation process. The budget itself takes effect July 1, but it sets several consolidation milestones into 2009.

“Today marks a new day and a bright day in all of our futures,” said Baldacci, who was flanked by a throng of Appropriations and Education committee members as well as other state officials and lobbyists.

The budget cuts and reorganizes administration in two major departments that comprise about 80 percent of the budget, Education and Health and Human Services, said Baldacci. With $36.5 million in savings through the education component, it is designed to provide tax relief.

Nearly $2 billion of the budget’s total is earmarked for the state subsidy to local schools, according to Senate President Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport. About $553 million goes to higher education, and $1.2 billion for heath care for Maine’s poor families and the elderly, Edmonds said.

Baldacci also referred to the budget’s set-asides for higher education.

It includes $5 million to ease a pending tuition increase at the University of Maine System, and $3 million for a 500-student expansion within the Maine Community College System.

“You have been able to grapple with at least two major departments … in terms of cutting administration, reorganizing administration and providing tax relief to our citizens both in health and education,” the Democratic governor told lawmakers, who were given keepsake pens used in the signing.

Service cuts and funding transfers help to avoid raising taxes on tobacco, as the budget Baldacci submitted in January proposed.

Senate Republicans issued a statement in which they claimed GOP “steadfastness” avoided $136 million in new tobacco taxes and more than $100 million in increases proposed by other Democrats.

Republicans also said spending curbs and other reforms in “budget-busting” programs such as Medicaid have also been championed by their party.

“I believe that the best possible budget was created under the circumstances,” said Senate Republican Leader Carol Weston of Montville, who did not support the consolidation component and voted against the budget. “I believe the changes this budget enacts will make tomorrow a little less scary.”

AP-ES-06-07-07 1613EDT

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