April 03, 2020
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Partisan gulf on school aid stalemates Maine budget talks

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Desks and chairs were gathered in the gymnasium of Frankfort Elementary School to be transported to other schools in the area.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Tuesday meeting of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee showed just how far apart Maine Democrats and Republicans are on education funding with a key deadline on the state’s two-year budget looming in less than a week.

After closed-door partisan caucuses over the Memorial Day weekend, the committee met Tuesday to take votes on agreed-upon items in the budget, though Democrats said before the meeting that the parties also would discuss their education funding proposals.

Education is the big issue in these sensitive budget negotiations. Republicans say they won’t accept a budget that doesn’t repeal the voter-approved surtax on incomes over $200,000 to fund education. Most Democrats say they won’t accept one not funding 55 percent of basic K-12 education costs, a standard set by voters in 2004 that the state hasn’t yet met.

But after a period of confusion, Democrats were the only ones to present their plan, proposing $2.2 billion for education. Democratic aides said Republicans initially agreed to discuss theirs.

However, Rep. Tom Winsor of Norway, the lead House Republican on the panel, said after the meeting that Democrats tried “put us into a corner” for a debate on the issue. He added that “the caucus plan is the governor’s plan, if you really want to be blunt about it,” even though Republicans have gone along with some changes already.

Winsor said there are still fundamental disagreements with Democrats on issues as big as the surtax that Republicans believe will make Maine less competitive economically but also as granular as performance measures to ensure that increased funding is being used well.

There’s yet another wrinkle. Maine law effectively has two different ways to calculate the 55 percent — one with teacher retirement costs included and one without them — and Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Republicans will be “coming forth with a budget proposal which will get us to 55 percent” by the first measure, which is easier for the state to hit.

However, Democrats and the Maine Education Association, a teachers union, argue that the more permissive threshold shouldn’t be used because retirement costs have never been part of the school assessment given to cities and towns.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, was having none of that debate, pressing Republicans to outline their plan to increase education funding, saying if they don’t like the surtax, they should “prove to me that it could be something else, but don’t come talk to me about 55 percent — I could care less.”

“The 3 percent is what the voters said we had to do,” he said. “Short of that, then we’re not going along with the voters.”

Does that seem like a weedy mess? Well, it is.

And just to ramp up the pressure, the Legislature is dealing with an informal June 5 deadline — that’s Monday — to get a budget out of this committee, giving it time to be drafted, voted on and sent to the governor before scheduled adjournment on June 21. We’re not close on this signature issue.

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.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect reference to Republicans’ preferred 55 percent calculation.

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