Budget Squeeze Threatens Maine Laptop Plan

 
There's nothing like a severe economic slowdown to change state lawmakers from patrons to pikers.

When the Legislature set aside $30 million last June to begin funding a first-in-the-nation program to provide 34,000 laptop computers for every seventh and eighth grade student in Maine, there was a healthy budget surplus. But then the economy headed south, and with it went the legislative enthusiasm.

"I think we have to look at our priorities and to me that is not a priority," says State Sen. Mary R. Cathcart, D-Orono, a member of the joint Appropriations Committee and an early supporter of the idea. "I'd rather use the money to send people to college than to buy laptops for seventh graders."

In the Maine House, which had strongly supported the laptop plan of Gov. Angus S. King, Jr., sentiment also has changed. "There's going to be a lot of pressure now to take that money and use it for something else," predicts Rep. William J. Schneider of Durham, the House Republican Whip.

But King says he won't give up without a fight, insisting that "it would be shortsighted, to me, to cripple a program that bears such promise for Maine's future. I mean, if you're having economic troubles that's the time when you want to invest in your future."

When King talks about his "good idea," he speaks with an obvious passion. "We're really talking about a fundamental change in the way that classes are taught," he says. "This isn't just a new textbook or something like that. We're talking about integrating, particularly, the Internet into the daily classroom activity. It will become the basic teaching and learning tool."

In his State of the State address last January, King noted that Maine is 37th in the country in per capita income, and in order to prevent its children from being the leading export it must "look for an edge, a niche, a calling card, an ace in the hole." The answer, he said then, was for the state to become "the most technologically capable society on earth."

Nine months earlier, King made news with his proposal to create a $65 million endowment, calling for $50 million in state funds and the rest in private donations, to generate interest payments that would give computers to all Maine seventh- through twelfth-graders by 2007. Over the following year, the plan was scaled down to $30 million in state financing, with the machines loaned, much like library books, to just seventh- and eighth-grade students in some 230 schools.

In order for the $30 million endowment to survive, however, King had to find the $15 million in private donations before he leaves office in January 2003.

The program, King says, "is moving forward very aggressively with teacher preparation ... I'm making contacts on fundraising, and we think we have some significant possibilities."

In the meantime, bids from computer manufacturers "all over the world" for the laptops and the wireless networks were due by the end of October, and will be awarded in early December. The plan calls for $500 machines that are sturdier than usual laptops and are intended to be mostly Internet access devices; they won't have hard drives or disk drives.

King's biggest problem, however, may be the new budget reality. Because the sales tax and the corporate and personal income taxes the state's three most lucrative General Fund revenues are generating less money than anticipated, King has ordered more than $10 million in across-the-board spending cuts, among them a 2 percent reduction in discretionary grants to public and private education.

Schneider says that has created some resentment in the Legislature: "We saw last session a budget that increased two taxes in order to raise about $70 million, while there was $30 million left in the laptop fund. You could argue that one of those taxes wouldn't have been necessary if the laptop fund had been zeroed out."

But in the budget negotiations set to start next January, King wields "a lot of power with the veto," says Cathcart, and she expects "some compromise" to free up money while saving the laptop plan. Annual costs for the program have been estimated at about $4 million, she notes, and that amount "can be an ongoing expenditure in the budget ... There's no reason we have to have this big endowment and set aside all that money that could be used for other necessities."

King is optimistic, though. "It appears at this point that we will be able to manage through the current situation without significantly cutting into individual programs, of which this would be one," he says. Of course, he adds, "if the economy just collapses, you have to analyze the situation as you find it."

 
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