Recession menaces Maine's notebook lockbox

Maine lawmakers who set aside a $30 million endowment last June to provide 34,000 notebook PCs to seventh- and eighth-grade students now are considering a raid on the fund. The national economic recession already has forced Maine to cut spending, and the Legislature soon may have to choose between enacting unpopular new levies or picking the lock on the lockbox.

Mary R. Cathcart, one of three senators on the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee, said Maine faces 'a shortfall of $33 million and it may grow.

'We may need to make the budget deficit,' Cathcart said. 'Nobody wants to raise taxes.'

Gov. Angus S. King Jr. has pledged to raise an additional $15 million for the notebook PC endowment. If he doesn't raise the private funds by the time he leaves office in January 2003, the endowment will revert to the state's treasury.

However, Cathcart said she believes that when the Legislature meets in January it should undo its earlier work. Under her plan, new legislation would release the endowment funds to fill the state's budget gap.

'I think a line-item appropriation is wiser than a lockbox in the present fiscal circumstances,' Cathcart said.

King already has mandated a 2 percent across-the-board spending cut for state agencies, including higher education institutions, Cathcart said.

The state has received bids for the equipment from various manufacturers and expects to award a contract in early December, according to the Washington-based nonprofit organization The specifications for the notebooks call for them to be sturdier than most and to be used as Internet access devices'they won't have hard drives or floppy-disk drives.

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