AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats in the Maine House of Representatives advanced their two-year budget proposal on Monday, but it was merely a procedural move that pushed the Legislature closer to a little-used process that will place the budget in the hands of a new panel.
It likely means that a committee of three Republicans and three Democrats will be entrusted with averting a government shutdown by coming to an agreement on a budget by the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment next week. The new budget year begins on July 1.
The Democratic-led House advanced their version of the budget in an 81-64 vote on Monday. The Republican-led Senate is expected to follow suit on Tuesday, making official the disagreement over education funding that has marked the budget process for months.
House Democrats have proposed trimming a voter-approved 3 percent surtax for new state school aid to 1.75 percent and offsetting it with other tax hikes to fund education at the same level as the tax in current law, which is expected to increase funding by an estimated $300 million over two years.
But Republicans have said they won’t accept a budget that keeps the 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to fund education. Senate Republicans have proposed a budget scrapping it, then adding $100 million in education funding within existing resources.
Legislative leaders emerged from a weekend of budget negotiations with no deal on Monday. The votes in the House and Senate early this week will trigger a committee of conference on the budget, a move that has been agreed upon by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.
Two Democrats and one Republican in the House would serve on the committee alongside two Republicans and one Democrat from the Senate. Under legislative rules, they would meet in public and have 10 days to file a report for consideration by the full Legislature.
Gideon spokeswoman Mary-Erin Casale said the new panel could start work on Wednesday.
To get on the new committee, lawmakers must have voted for their chamber’s version of the budget. Three Republicans voted with Democrats in the House on Monday. Two — Tom Winsor of Norway and Jeff Timberlake of Turner — are members of the Appropriations Committee, which failed to produce a consensus budget after months of deliberation..
Whether a new committee can do what that panel and legislative leaders picking the new one haven’t is up for debate, but time is running low.
The unofficial deadline for the Legislature’s passage of a budget — which takes two-thirds majorities in both chambers — is Friday, giving them time to get it to Gov. Paul LePage’s desk before scheduled adjournment on June 21 and then return to override a likely veto.