Tuell: Senate, House Divided Over School Law Repeal, Both Pass Penalty Reprieve

Senate, House Divided Over School Law Repeal, Both Pass Penalty Reprieve

By Will Tuell, Downeast Coastal Press, June 9, 2009

Maine's school reorganization law returned to the spotlight this past week as legislators voted on several bills that would either scale back or eliminate it outright. Both houses passed a bill that would delay penalties for municipalities that failed to reorganize their school systems with neighboring districts, while the House and Senate were narrowly split on whether to repeal the law outright. Additionally, 17 districts that voted to consolidate, but whose reorganization partners did not, were given a one-year penalty reprieve as part of the state budget that was passed in late May.

The repeal initiative—so-called because failure to pass it legislatively will trigger a ballot referendum this November after petitioners successfully submitted the requisite number of signatures to force the issue forward—passed in the Senate by a 19-16 vote. However, it was rejected by the House of Representatives by a razor-thin 72-70 margin, with nine representatives unavailable for the roll call vote.

State Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye (R-Perry) described the Senate's vote as a major aboutface from two years ago when the Baldacci administration and members of the Appropriations Committee inserted the school reorganization law into the state budget. Raye, at the time, was one of a handful of senators to oppose the budget on those grounds.

“When this ill-conceived law was passed two years ago, the vote in the Senate was 28 to 7. The vote to reject it today was a stunning reversal that comes after two years of watching school districts and communities struggle to implement a heavy-handed law that is fatally flawed,” said Raye in a press release. “It is particularly telling that 10 senators who voted in favor the law two years ago voted to repeal it today.”

The House rejected repeal by a 72-70 margin, with Washington County legislators Dave Burns (R-Whiting), Howard McFadden (R-Dennysville), Everett McLeod (R-Lee) and Dianne Tilton (R-Harrington) voting in favor. Rep. Anne Perry (D-Calais) opted against repeal, but supported the House's vote to delay penalties for a year.

In the Senate, 14 Republicans and five Democrats voted for repeal, while 15 Democrats and one Republican voted against doing so. House Democrats opposed repeal by a 63-27 margin, while Republicans voted 42-9 in favor of the measure. The House's lone independent, Thomas Saviello (U-Wilton), also voted for the repeal initiative. Five Democrats and four Republicans were absent from the vote.

Further votes on the issue will be held this week. Governor John Baldacci has vowed to veto any repeal measure, which would take a two-thirds majority in both houses to ensure the law's repeal without a ballot referendum in November.

House, Senate Support Penalty Delays

While sentiment on the repeal initiative was mixed, legislators in both houses agreed that penalties imposed on “nonconforming” school districts—those who have opted not to reorganize—should be delayed an additional year. The House did so with a veto-proof 111-32 majority, while the Senate voted 20-15 on the penalty delay issue. Baldacci has not said publicly whether he would veto LD 285 or sign it into law. The law would be moot if voters opt to repeal school reorganization in November.

During debate on the penalties issue, Raye characterized them as “taking money from children and schools in the poorest parts of the state that struggle the most, and transferring it to those in more prosperous areas where consolidation works.” Raye termed the education consolidation law as the perhaps “the most glaring example of the divisive ‘Two Maines Syndrome’ in our lifetime.” He called upon senators to reject the law and “send a message that we are one state and that we will find a way to make the law work for everybody.”

The Legislature had signaled a move toward delaying penalties when it approved the state budget, which included language that would do the same thing for s17 school units that voted for reorganization only to have their potential consolidation partners shoot it down.

Locally this means that SAD 37 and Deblois will be spared penalties for a year, while their would-be partners, Beddington, Jonesport and Beals will face them unless LD 285 becomes law. LD 285 would also impact the Machias-area school systems, which resoundingly voted against reorganization, and those in the Calais area which followed suit. Without the legislation, penalties would go into effect July 1, 2009. If it is passed, they will not take effect until July 1, 2010.