Maine lawmakers averted a government shutdown, overriding Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the budget for FY14 and FY15. Both branches exceeded the required two-thirds vote, with the House voting 114–34 in support of the override, and the Senate voting 26-9 in support.
While Democrats won the budget battle in rejecting LePage’s budget plan, they lost a number of battles including a move to expand health care coverage to 70,000 Maine residents and to raise the minimum wage in Maine from $7.50 to $8.50 an hour.
The $6.3 billion budget:
- raises sales tax for two years from 5% to 5.5%
- raises meals, lodging tax for two years from 7% to 8%
- preserves tax cut of $400 million passed in 2010
- restores $125 million (approximately two thirds of cuts) to municipal revenue-sharing
- increases funding for public education to 47%
- provides funding for Head Start
- restores cuts to program which help senior citizens pay for prescription medications
- reduces the waitlist for MaineCare for those with severe disabilities
- restores funding for merit and longevity pay for state workers
- Approved a bill requiring the labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) making Maine the second state to pass such legislation. LePage has indicated he will sign the bill in January 2014,when the Legislature reconvenes.
- Created the Maine Skills Gap Program to meet immediate hiring needs of Maine employers. The goal is to encourage students and qualified experienced workers to take positions with Maine companies with significant unmet demand for skilled labor. An employee would be reimbursed a portion of debt while still working for the company.
- Overrode LePage’s veto and approved an energy-efficiency bill, which will expand natural gas infrastructure and lower electricity costs for Maine businesses.
- Overrode the governor’s veto and approved a measure that requires police and law- enforcement agencies to get a warrant to track a user’s cellphone location in real-time or obtain historical location data.
- Approved finance revenue bonds to pay the state’s hospitals for services provided to Medicaid recipients. Hospitals are owed $184 million in state Medicaid funds, which would trigger a $305 million federal match.
The Maine Legislature returned to work for a one-day special session on Aug. 29 and approved a $150 million bond package for infrastructure projects. The largest proposal was a $100 million transportation infrastructure bond. Three other bond proposals call for investment in science, technology, engineering and math facilities at the University of Maine, Maine Community Colleges and Maine Maritime Academy. A fourth bond proposal funds renovations and repairs for state armories. The bond proposals must be approved by Maine voters in November. Legislators also approved an emergency measure to address overcrowding and staff shortages at a state psychiatric facility. The plan must receive approval from the federal government.
The University of Maine System was flat-funded for FY14. The system has a balanced budget, while maintaining tuition and fees at FY12 levels. State appropriations for the system have steadily declined as a percent of the state budget. The budget for FY14 is $6.2 million below FY08 levels.
Much of LD 90, legislation to address workforce needs, was incorporated into the budget (LD 1509) including:
- $500,000 for the University of Maine System to help adults complete their degrees
- $2.4 million to reduce a student backlog for 14 grant programs and allow the system to add more than 250 students.*
Trustees for the Maine Community Colleges approved a tuition increase of $60 over FY13. Full-time undergraduate students will pay $60 more in tuition, paying $2,640.
Maine Maritime Academy’s tuition and fees for 2013-14 will be $11,950, up from $11,525 this year.
First-generation college students. The Legislature required the Board of Trustees of the University of Maine to submit to the Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, a report outlining efforts to increase enrollment and graduation rates of first-generation students as well as data regarding enrollment and graduation rates. Also, University of Maine Trustees will establish a working group to increase recruitment of first-generation college students.
Dual Enrollment. The Legislature created a dual-enrollment career and technical education collaborative partnership to provide a cohort-based learning pathway for career and technical education students to take postsecondary education courses and earn credits toward an associate degree.
Access. The Legislature created permanent commission on Expanding Early Postsecondary Access for High School Students.
The Legislature also provided $27,000 over a two-year period to the STEM Council to hire an executive director to advance science and math education, create career awareness campaigns, and spearhead internship opportunities for high school and college students in these fields.
The centerpiece of LePage’s education reform package was the implementation of a statewide grading system for public schools. According to LePage, the so-called A–F system will make schools more accountable. Rob Walker, president of the Maine Education Association, criticized the methodology as the grading system gives failing grades to schools with the highest percentage of students on free- and reduced-priced lunch programs, an indication of how socioeconomic factors affect a school’s grade.
Carolyn Morwick handles government and community relations at NEBHE and is former director of the Caucus of New England State Legislatures.
* Note: updated Sept. 23, 2013.