June 06, 2020

Questions raised on laptop funding Balanced state budget ‘first obligation’

When Gov. Angus King proposed creating a $50 million trust fund to generate enough interest to buy portable computers for every seventh- through 12-grader in Maine, he said a beautiful element of the plan was that if it didn’t work, the state would still have the $50 million for other purposes.

But now, with a slowing national economy and the state facing a budget gap of approximately $200 million over the next two years, there are rumblings that the governor’s computer cookie jar could end up being raided in the coming legislative session.

Though no specific threats have been leveled against the Maine Learning Technology Endowment, supporters of King’s plan are worried it could be attacked, and legislative leaders point out that last spring many lawmakers were lukewarm toward King’s idea.

The key to support, according to lawmakers, is a plan being formulated by a panel of educators and legislators refining and modifying the governor’s March proposal.

“Our first obligation is to balance the budget,” said Senate President Mike Michaud, D-East Millinocket.

And while “everything is on the table,” according to Michaud, he and other lawmakers hesitated to say whether the technology endowment might be dismantled until they see both the task force’s report and the governor’s budget.

The budget is to be presented on Jan. 5, and the task force’s final plan is to be issued 10 days later.

The Maine Learning Technology Endowment was created last spring from surplus revenue. How it is used is up to the Legislature and the governor.

An attack on the fund is “a concern,” said John Ripley, King’s spokesman. But the governor “hopes that legislators see that this is crucial for future generations of Maine students.”

“King believes that this will put Maine on the [technological] map,” Ripley added.

Sen. Sharon Treat, D-Gardiner, a self-described supporter of educational technology and a member of the task force, notes, “The Legislature was not prepared to spend money on technology or computers last spring. And it’s an open question on whether it is willing to spend it this year with a tighter budget … Cutting a program that hasn’t gone into effect is one of the easier things to do.”

The governor and the task force “will have to make a compelling case,” she said.

In the task force’s favor is that its proposal is “a hundred percent better” than the governor’s original one, Treat added.

The task force has proposed two major revisions to King’s plan. One is that instead of equipping seventh- through 12-graders, only seventh- and eighth-grade classes with be rigged out with machines. And instead of the devices being given outright to pupils, schools will get them and let pupils take them home like library books.

King’s idea came under attack last spring by lawmakers and the public when the computers were going to be given to the students, said Rep. Irvin Belanger, R-Caribou, a task force member. “But there may be a different take on the matter now that the schools will own them.”

Joe Bruno of Raymond, leader of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives, said that if the projected gap in state revenues and expenses bears out, the question will be how deeply lawmakers tap into the $143 million Rainy Day Fund, set aside for unexpected financial problems, and the technology endowment, or whether they raise taxes.

“It may be a really good idea,” Bruno said. “But the tough question is do we give computers to kids or raise taxes.”

And while much hinges on the task force’s pending proposal, panel member Rep. Richard Mailhot, D-Lewiston, worries about the plan’s sketchiness to date.

“I don’t think we have a concrete plan for the [$50 million] yet,” said Mailhot, who last year served on the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee and who knows the importance of tying details down.

While there is support among lawmakers, including himself, for educational technology, until a precise line-item budget, with contingency plans, is forthcoming, “this has a minuscule chance” in the Legislature, Mailhot said.

In another vein, Bruno and Republican Rick Bennett of Norway, the Senate’s president pro tem, also injected a dose of realpolitik into the discussion during interviews.

It will be politically difficult to dismantle the fund, Bennett said, because “the governor really wants it,” and is probably willing to resort to a line-item veto to quash any attempt to redirect the funding.

Bruno added, “I think the governor will defend that technology endowment to the end.”

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