AUGUSTA, Maine — Less than a month before statutory adjournment, legislative Democrats have threatened to shut down government if state funding for schools doesn’t reach 55 percent.

Fifty-two Democratic and two independent House members, along with four Democratic senators, have signed a pact to oppose any budget bill that doesn’t have a “progressive and sustainable funding source to reach 55 percent of the cost of our kids’ education as called for by Maine voters.”

The pact does not say explicitly that the signers will oppose any budget that repeals Question 2, a voter-approved ballot question that imposes a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to aid public schools, but it states clearly that voters “knew what they were doing when they voted to fund education at 55 percent for the second time.”

If this is the first time you’ve read about education funding in Maine, “second time” refers to last year’s referendum and the 2004 referendum that called for 55 percent state funding for K-12 public education in Maine. Voters overwhelmingly backed the 2004 ballot question, but state government has never hit that funding threshold since then.

This battle has been raging for 13 years and counting, and much of the debate lies around what 55 percent really is. Does it include everything, including teacher retirement and health insurance costs or just the stuff that’s covered by state subsidies sent directly to schools?

It’s unsurprising that a group of Democrats is pledging to support Democratic budget priorities that have been named the “Opportunity Agenda,” but what is noteworthy here is the number, which would be enough to block the two-thirds vote needed to enact a biennial state budget.

The Democratic organizers of the letter, Rep. Scott Hamann of South Portland and Rep. Michael Sylvester of Portland, said the effort is about trying to leverage the Legislature to support the will of the voters when it comes to education funding and setting up an ongoing source of direct funding that isn’t prone to political and economic whims.

“Right now, Question 2 does all of those things,” Sylvester said. “The answer can’t be one-time money. It has to be both progressive and sustainable.”

Sylvester and Hamann say Republicans look ready to shut down government over school funding but now they’re drawing their own line in the sand. It should be noted that no Democratic legislative leaders signed the letter.

Legislative leaders continue to say what they have been saying for weeks: agreement on the state budget bill is still highly uncertain. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said Wednesday that negotiations are sputtering at best and that education funding and Question 2 are among the issues at the center of the debate.

Republicans have said that they could not endorse a budget that does not blunt what they believe will be the negative impact of the surtax on entrepreneurs, small business owners and high earners. That’s their government shutdown line in the sand.

The Legislature’s budget committee, which is nearing deadlines to make a recommendation on a new two-year $6.8 billion spending plan, is prepared to work through the holiday weekend in search of a solution, but we’re not expecting a resolution until the very last possible moment, if not sometime in July.

‘Tis the season for government shutdown threats.

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.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.