Flat Funding Won’t Stave Off Cuts, Maine Higher Education Officials Warn Lawmakers

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The leaders of Maine’s public education institutions presented a mixed message to Legislature’s budget committee Monday.

While the leaders of the University of Maine System, community colleges and Maine Maritime Academy said Monday morning that they were grateful to be offered flat funding, given state government’s lingering fiscal difficulties, their institutions are nonetheless faced with making cuts rather than additions even though demand for their services is as high as it has been in years.

At issue is Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal, which is currently under consideration by the Legislature, beginning with what are expected to be weeks of public hearings before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. The budget bill, which will be debated for the next few months in Augusta, covers state spending for two years beginning on July 1.

LePage has proposed essentially flat funding for higher education institutions and public schools during the next two years. But as some described, rising and uncontrollable costs, as well as aging infrastructure in some buildings, add up to a bleak financial situation.

James H. Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, said that his system is taking additional steps to cut costs.

“The University of Maine System is aware of the unique challenges facing this committee as you look to report out a budget to the full Legislature,” said Page. “If the committee is able to hold educational and general activities appropriations flat for the upcoming two years, as proposed by the governor, our trustees have committed to holding undergraduate, in-state tuition flat for the next two academic years. This will allow us to reverse the trend of year-over-year increases and give us the time to implement structural changes to help control future costs.”

The trustees, who did not raise tuition levels for the current academic year for the first time in at least 25 years, voted in September to keep tuition flat for the next two years as well. LePage, in turn, who had previously requested a freeze in tuitions, reacted to the system’s decision by saying it wasn’t “good enough.”

“They’ve got to show me a heck of a lot more than just freezing tuition,” LePage said to the Bangor Daily News in September, suggesting as one way to increase revenues that the system do more to attract higher-paying out-of-state students. “I will freeze and maybe increase appropriations if they lock [in] tuition for every freshman class for four years.”

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