The University of Maine System Office of Government & Community Relations builds awareness and appreciation among local, state and federal officials for the important role of our public universities in serving and strengthening Maine’s citizens, communities and economy.

The office works proactively to build relationships with policymakers and their staff, leverage our world-class research and knowledge to inform their work, and be responsive to their requests for information. Central to this is preparing and facilitating our faculty, staff, students and partners to most effectively engage with elected officials and showing legislators university teaching, research and public service in action on our campuses and in our communities.

Consistent with the UMS Board of Trustees’ policy, the office develops and advances the strategic legislative agenda of the University System and its campuses. To do so most effectively, the office coordinates all official engagement by our employees with Maine’s elected officials, though employees may of course always do so as private citizens.

In partnership with the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, the office also delivers the UMS Faculty Fellows Program, an innovative six-month training and networking program designed to prepare an annual cohort of faculty leaders to more effectively engage external constituents on behalf of their work and Maine’s public universities.

In mid-March, the 129th Legislature adjourned nearly a month earlier than expected as a result of COVID-19. Before doing so, they enacted a $73M emergency funding package that was scaled down significantly from Governor Mills’ original $126M supplemental budget proposal, reflecting concerns about a downturn in the economy as a result of the global pandemic. The package included funding to help Maine respond to the coronavirus, including expanded Maine CDC lab and public health nursing capacity, as well as increased reimbursement rates for some direct health care providers.

Legislators also agreed to send to voters a $105M transportation bond as well as a $15M broadband bond, a key investment championed by the University of Maine System that will help narrow educational equity gaps that especially disadvantage our place-bound rural adult learners.

Unfortunately, the critical $4.9M in FY21 supplemental funding for the UMS and $718,000 for Maine Law that was included in the Governor’s original supplemental budget and supported by the Education Committee was not included in the emergency package. The Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy also did not receive new funding, though MCCS did receive $2.5M for the short-term workforce training they administer through the Maine Quality Centers.

As a result and not taking into account any potential reductions stemming from the State budgetary implications of coronavirus, the UMS is expected to enter the next fiscal year (FY21) with flat State funding, despite significant operational cost increases mostly due to recently ratified collective bargaining agreements. Additionally, the UMS is estimating that our proactive decision to protect public health by moving students and employees off-campus and on-line will have an immediate financial cost of at least $20M, largely a result of reimbursing prorated room and board.

Governor Mills has already indicated she will call legislators back for a special session when it is safe and prudent to do so. At that time, it will be critical for the UMS and its supporters to advocate for much needed supplemental funding to address our ongoing operational needs as well as provide some relief to the grave financial challenges created by the novel coronavirus. Doing so will better ensure Maine’s public universities can continue to provide access to the affordable quality higher education and workforce training that will be so necessary for Mainers to rebuild their lives and our economy, which is increasingly dependent on those with four-year or advanced degrees.