AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans aligned with Gov. Paul LePage in the Maine House of Representatives inched stalled two-year budget negotiations forward on Thursday, offering $125 million in education funding over the previous fiscal cycle.
It represents the first major movement in negotiations from the group that has been holding out in budget negotiations, with LePage issuing a statement calling it “a reasonable proposal” that he’d sign if Democrats immediately agreed to it.
That isn’t going to happen: While House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, called it “a big move to get closer together” in a Thursday hearing, she issued a statement afterward saying the offer “falls short” of Democratic goals to bolster education funding and provide property tax relief.
Any further delay risks a government shutdown if a budget isn’t in place by July 1. House Republicans have LePage on their side, giving them leverage over the final product with the Legislature within the 10-day window for LePage to hold a bill before signing or vetoing it.
The House Republican plan would exceed a total of $7 billion, crossing a line that LePage has previously said would draw a veto. It would ax a voter-approved surtax on high earners estimated to generate $300 million earmarked for school spending over two years and includes education reforms at which Democrats have bristled.
Of the $125 million in education funding absent the surtax, $27 million would go to two reforms: a voluntary pilot program for a statewide teacher contract and a fund to equalize teacher salaries between rich and poor districts, with the rest going into Maine’s school funding formula. Another $10 million would expand a LePage program to incentivize school consolidation.
“The reality is that we’ve made significant movement. The governor has made significant movement,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. “We’re trying to bring this thing together. No one wants to see a shutdown.”
House Republicans presented the plan to a special budget committee on Thursday, a week after the six-person panel stopped working, with Gideon blasting Fredette for holding up negotiations. Democrats have offered to come down to $200 million in additional education funding.
Sen. Catherine Breen, D-Falmouth, noted on Thursday that the Legislature’s education committee already rejected the statewide teacher contract plan in bill form. It died after the House voted against it. Breen said her fellow Democrats “remain very concerned with mixing the budget process with education reforms.”
The plan covers other areas of policy that could be poison pills for Democrats, including taking $10 million from the Fund for Healthy Maine and cutting $5 million in General Assistance for non-citizens. It would also restore a $1 million legal fund for LePage that Democrats and Senate Republicans have proposed cutting.
But Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a budget committee member who represents many state workers, said lawmakers are “hurting people right now” who are worrying about a shutdown.
“Everybody at this table, everybody in this room is here in good faith,” Katz said. “I just hope we can get it done sooner rather than later.”