December 18, 2017
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Why Maine’s budget talks are going nowhere fast

By Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd, BDN Staff
Troy R. Bennett | BDN file | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN file | BDN
Senate President Mike Thibodeau

AUGUSTA, Maine — With lawmakers receiving their last paychecks of the session and statutory adjournment set for June 21, much of the attention now in the State House focuses on Maine’s two-year budget, where a “huge gap” remains on education funding even after Senate Republicans came forward Wednesday to propose $100 million in extra education funding.

But the reception on that pivotal budget issue was more than frosty.

Democrats pooh-poohed it because it’s well short of the $300 million or so estimated to be gained from Maine’s voter-approved surtax on high-income earners — which Republicans want to scrap — and Gov. Paul LePage issued a hasty veto threat in a radio interview Thursday.

It leaves Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, caught in heavy crossfire as the Legislature nears an informal deadline of next week to vote a budget out of the Appropriations Committee in enough time to vote on it and send it to LePage before the session’s June 21 end.

On Wednesday, Thibodeau told reporters that Senate Republicans were proposing $100 million in new education funding in the 2018-2019 budget year, finding the money “within existing resources.”

The breakdown of where that money would come from is unclear: Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a member of the budget committee, said some of it would come from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, while his caucus is also looking at ways to “decrease the size of state government so we can increase funding for public education.”

“I don’t know how anybody can’t recognize this is a tremendous victory for the state of Maine,” Thibodeau said.

But to Democrats, that sounds like “cuts” in other areas of government. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, called that a non-starter, saying, “We don’t think those are acceptable ways to pay for education funding.”

Thibodeau’s also dealing with a Republican split on the issue. Both parties seemed ready to present their education funding ideas at a Tuesday meeting of the budget-writing committee, but Republicans backed down saying there was nothing to present.

And in his Thursday veto threat on WGAN, LePage said “if he thinks you put $100 million into a broken system without fixing it, then it’s just not going to work,” saying “it’s not about more money to education, but more money into the classroom.”

However, the governor seems to wrongly assume that the Senate plan would just add $100 million to the state’s school funding formula, which the surtax would go to with some restrictions about how it is spent. But Thibodeau said he wants to see money earmarked for “bipartisan reforms that I think both sides can agree to.”

And Katz said many of LePage’s own ideas for school reform are in play. Those include a statewide teacher contract and voluntary district consolidation efforts, which Democrats haven’t opposed outright, at least in concept.

Katz said there still are “many, many outstanding issues” outside of education to be negotiated between the parties, “but I think most would agree that if we get the education funding and reform out of the way, the rest of it would be easier.”

Senate Republicans’ move seemed at first like a step forward on Wednesday in the absence of other action. But the sides are still dug in with little daylight in sight.

“No, we’re not,” Gideon said when asked on Wednesday if the parties were closer than the day before. “There’s a huge gap between us right now.”

This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.


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