With a deadline fast approaching, budget negotiators in Augusta face a daunting task of bridging major disagreements over an increase in education spending approved by voters last year. They must be guided by the principle that school funding should not come at the expense of programs that protect and improve the health and wellbeing of Maine people.
Maine has the financial capacity to fund both K-12 education and programs that ensure students and adults are fed and safe from disease outbreaks and that insurance and treatment are accessible to those who need it.
It is important to keep this in mind because Gov. Paul LePage’s characterizations of the budget process are largely inaccurate. Earlier this week, he blasted lawmakers for being lazy and not simply accepting his budget. His budget plan was a rehash of spending cuts, particularly to health and human services, and tax cuts that lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly rejected. As in previous years, LePage’s was not a serious budget plan.
Then, as he has done in prior years, the governor has walked away from budget negotiations. He has also made it difficult for lawmakers to get information from department heads. Lawmakers need this information to make informed decisions about what programs need more money and which ones they can eliminate or scale back.
Further, this information, including revenue and spending data from the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, is public information. It belongs to Maine people, not the governor. Withholding this information, and punishing those who share it, is unconscionable.
The governor also has had harsh words for Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, a Democrat, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Republican. Unlike LePage, these two take seriously their commitment to have a balanced budget in place when the next fiscal year starts on July 1.
To accomplish this, they must compromise. The alternative, which continued obstruction from House Minority Leader Ken Fredette will lead to, is a government shutdown. This would benefit no one and would hurt real Maine people.
Much of the debate over the budget centers on education funding. Voters in November approved a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 with the money directed to Maine schools. This additional revenue would raise state school funding to 55 percent, another benchmark approved voters — in 2004.
The surtax is currently in state law and revenue — to the tune of $150 million a year — is already being collected. Republicans want to repeal the surtax, which requires changing state law and would lead to a reduction in state education spending in order to give the state’s wealthiest residents a tax break.
House Republican leadership has so far said it would not make up for the education funding cut through other financial resources.
Senate Republican leadership has proposed allocating $110 million in additional funding toward schools, but have not identified specifically where that money would come from. Sen. Roger Katz, a member of a group of six lawmakers who are currently working to craft a compromise budget, has proposed another $65 million in savings, including eliminating the governor’s $500,000 budget line for legal counsel, that could go toward school funding. This brings the Republican total to $175 million.
Meanwhile, Democrats, who initially said they would not waver from the surtax and its $300 million in revenue in the next two years, have publicly proposed reducing the surtax to 1.75 percent on income over $300,000 a year. Their proposal would also increase the state’s sales and lodging taxes, thereby giving the rich a tax cut and spreading the responsibility for increased education spending to all Maine residents. Their plan would bring in $250 million over the next two years, which would be dedicated to school funding. During Wednesday’s negotiations, Democrats said they would accept $200 million for education.
Technically, this means that Democratic leadership and Senate Republican leadership are only $25 million apart, a tiny number in a two-year budget that will total close to $7 billion.
But, the small dollar difference masks some large philosophical differences, particularly around tax policy and public health. The ongoing budget debate must not pit education against social services and health initiatives. Maine has the financial capacity to fund both.