AUGUSTA, Maine — Before adjourning Wednesday night, the special panel of six lawmakers trying to bridge their own gaps on Maine’s two-year budget set a deadline of noon Thursday to finish their work.
But like so many other deadlines in the six-month slog toward passing a budget, this one will need to be extended. The panel did not plan to meet again until after noon, and agreement on the major sticking point — education funding — remains out of reach.
There was some movement Wednesday, with Democrats and Senate Republicans ceding a bit on past school funding demands. But House Republicans were still holding out for policy changes that may be difficult to build consensus on in the 11th hour of negotiations.
There will be government shutdown if there’s no budget by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. The Legislature has been working under a Friday deadline to pass a budget in both chambers, which takes two-thirds majorities. To get it to the floor in time, the Legislature’s budget office has said it needs to begin drafting the document around noon today.
On Wednesday night, Democrats retreated on education funding, saying they would accept a $200 million increase in state aid to schools over the last two-year budget after they made an offer of roughly $250 million last week.
That would bite into the voter-approved surtax on high earners, expected to generate more than $300 million over two year, but Democrats have come down because Republicans have been united in saying they want to repeal the surtax.
Senate Republicans countered by restating an earlier offer of $110 million more in education funding over the last budget cycle without the surtax. However, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said that there could be $65 million more available for schools or other needs.
Charitably, you could say that Democrats and Senate Republicans are close on school funding — $200 million vs. $175 million. But House Republicans aren’t playing that game.
Their only member of the panel, Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, said his caucus was reticent to increase spending over current levels of just under $6.9 billion — which Senate Republicans and Democrats would — and ticked off a list of school reforms that his fellow members want to see, from addressing “operational overhead” to experimenting with a statewide teacher contract to reducing truancy.
Democrats voted against a bill to implement a statewide teacher contract in a May committee vote. Some of what Republicans have sought around education reform was contained in a 45-page proposal presented Wednesday by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, including expanding the administration’s authority to incentivize school regionalization and consolidation, which LePage has begun this year on his own.
But LePage isn’t likely to be happy: Spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett called Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, “the $7 billion man” on WGAN on Thursday and Katz, a longtime LePage adversary, presented other ideas that find more than $50 million in savings and transfers in the governor’s proposed budget, including axing a $500,000 legal fund for LePage.
More granular disagreements remain. Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told the special panel on Wednesday that four leaders on his committee worked this week to reduce 255 disagreements over other budget line items to 16.
In those cases, three caucuses agree, but one was withholding support. He didn’t disclose all the outstanding lines items, but he told the Bangor Daily News that six of those lines have to do with LePage’s proposed transfers from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which uses tobacco settlement money to fund wellness programs.
He said he would “neither confirm nor deny” that House Republicans were the holdout caucus. But whether you think they’re right or wrong, they are in this process.
It will only take two House members and two senators to move the budget out of the committee, but House Republicans can withhold a two-thirds majority on the floor, so their movement or lack thereof over the next 24 hours will be crucial.
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.