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Published in Print: February 6, 2002, as Maine Laptop Push Advances, But Eyed for Cuts

Maine Laptop Push Advances, But Eyed for Cuts

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Maine's ambitious plan to provide middle schoolers with laptop computers faces a fight for its life as state legislators eye it as a source of budget savings.

Maine's ambitious plan to provide middle schoolers with laptop computers faces a fight for its life as state legislators eye it as a source of budget savings.

While Gov. Angus King is vowing to protect the $30 million program from elimination, legislators say the project is a prime candidate for cuts as they try to make up for a projected $250 million budget deficit.

"It's very much at risk," said Rep. Patrick E. Colwell, the leader of the Democratic majority in the House. "My caucus supports the idea of technology in schools. At the same time, we're not quite sure how it measures up against the cuts the governor is proposing."

Gov. King, an Independent, promises to fight for the program, which is scheduled to provide a laptop computer to every Maine 7th and 8th grader for classroom use. Nine schools are slated to receive computers next month as a demonstration program. The rest of the states' middle schools are to get their laptops at the start of the 2002-03 school year.

"He's still very committed to see this happen," said Tony Sprague, a spokesman for Mr. King. "This is a very important program, especially for Maine's future."

The governor proposed the laptop initiative two years ago, when Maine and other states were rolling in surpluses. After more than a year of deliberations, the legislature appropriated $30 million for the program last year.

Last month, the state signed a $37.5 million contract with Apple Computer Inc. to deliver iBook computers to students in the state's 241 middle schools. The state is using federal money to supplement the $30 million in state funding. It also has won a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to train teachers in how to use the machines in their classrooms.

Tough Choices

But lean fiscal times have put the future of the program in doubt. Mr. King has proposed $250 million in cuts to balance the state's $2.5 billion budget by the end of fiscal 2003. He included a $5 million reduction for the laptop program. Even with the cut, the program would have enough money to purchase laptops over the next four years, Mr. Sprague said.

But legislative leaders say the governor's proposals to trim money for nursing homes and domestic-violence prevention are going to be hard for them to go along with, making the $25 million remaining for the laptop program an easy target.

"If we need to make a decision between funding nursing homes and laptops," said Rep. Joseph Bruno, the House Republican leader, "I think laptops would go first."

The House Republicans are united behind him, he said.

But Mr. Sprague said legislative leaders were exaggerating the impact of the governor's proposed budget cuts. Most of the programs would not be cut from current levels, he said, but the increases they're scheduled to receive in the second year of the biennial budget would be scaled back.

Supporters of the laptop initiative are hoping that revised revenue projections due this month will make the task of trimming the budget easier.

With the Maine economy appearing to be on the rebound, many expect that revenue projections will rise, sparing the legislature from making cuts to the laptop program.

"We made a commitment, and we need to follow through on it," said Sen. Betty Lou Mitchell, a Republican, who co-chairs the legislature's joint committee on education and cultural affairs. "It's a credibility issue."

Vol. 21, Issue 21, Page 18

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