AUGUSTA — Teacher furlough days. Reduction or elimination of the Maine-RX program. Early prisoner release. Members of the Appropriation Committee discussed each as a possible solution to closing the state budget gap during an all-day meeting Wednesday.

Officially, the lawmakers are charged with filling a $30 million hole in the current biennial state budget, but with revenues lagging throughout the year, it’s expected to be larger.

“It was a day of reckoning; we cannot preserve and protect funding for every program we now fund,” said Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, the committee’s lead Republican.

Millett said he was pleased that state superintendents, who met recently with state Education Commission Susan Gendron, put forth the idea of teacher furlough days.

“It was most positive to hear that suggestion come from the people who provide the services at the local level; we have made other state government employees take these days, so in terms of comparability and fairness it does make sense,” he said.

Gendron, who testified before the committee, said a total of $7 million in state and local funds would be saved per shutdown day for teachers, with about $3 million of that coming from the General Fund.

Members of the Appropriations Committee said they would prefer to discuss such a move with legislators on the Education Committee before fully considering such a move.

Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, also spoke to lawmakers. She said her department, is already working with reduced resources.

“The message from (Harvey) was that for the past seven years her staff has been doing this work (of finding efficiencies), so they don’t know where else to go at this point,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who serves on the Appropriations Committee. “We know the difficult decisions are coming and it was a dose of reality in terms of the kinds of choices we’ll be looking into.”

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, another committee member, said anxiety is building for members as their deadlines creep up.

“It’s scary, we’re getting closer and closer to having to achieve the cuts,” she said. “It’s amazing we are going to have to cut programs that are so needed.”

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said programs like tax breaks for businesses on electricity prices should also be considered.

“Everyone has suffered and we kept those programs whole,” he said. “It’s certainly something to consider before we take the food out of children’s mouths.”

When members met about a month ago, they were given lists of all government programs that are not constitutionally mandated and could conceivably be on the chopping block. They were instructed to return on Wednesday with copies marked up with programs they were willing to look at and also those they weren’t so discussions could move forward on a more specific level. Only about half of the members turned in their homework so work will continue on that when they meet for two days near the end of the month.

Millett said he also hoped to allow for public input before final decisions get made.

“We need to vet these ideas before a larger audience,” he said.

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