AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- This will be a weekend of work—likely a long one-- for leaders of the Maine Legislature. With the budget deadline coming steadily closer, they still are trying to reach agreement on a new, two-year state budget. The primary obstacle continues to be the question of more funding for K-12 schools, an issue driven by that controversial 3% tax surcharge on higher incomes, passed by voters to raise more money for schools.
Democrats now say they want schools to increase by $250 million over the two year budget. While that would be less than the $320 million the tax was projected to raise, they say the reduced amount would still keep faith with voters who passed referendum, Question 2 last fall.
Republicans continue to say their number one goal is eliminating the added tax. But that’s where agreement appears to end. Republicans in the Senate continue to offer an added $100 million for schools.
“(W)e will honor the spirit of what voters passed without doing harm to Maine’s economy,” said Senate President, Mike Thibodeau, on Friday. “That means a significant amount of money going to K-12 education.”
House Republicans are still proposing a smaller increase for schools, offering a compromise Thursday they say would raise school funding by $30 million. Republicans say that offer is contingent on passing “critical” education reforms, including proposals to reduce funding for administration and increase it for classrooms.
Democratic Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon, signaled her party is willing to negotiate further, and that compromise on a budget will require everyone to give more ground.
“I think we know ultimately we need to find a way to meet in the middle,” she said.
But that level of compromise may prove hard for a number of legislators in both parties. Gideon acknowledged there are Democrats who don’t want to give in on the 3% tax or the amount of money it would raise. She said those people are not happy with her proposing to reduce the size of the surtax and accept a lesser school funding amount.
“There are a lot of people dissatisfied we have changed from what the referendum told us to do, but we felt that was really important,” Gideon said.
House GOP Leader, Ken Fredette, also warned budget negotiators not to grow the overall spending beyond what the state expects to take in taxes, which is estimated to be slightly over $7 billion over two years.
“Going to seven billion is already nearly a 300 million increase,” said Fredette.
The four party leaders of the Legislature and members of the Appropriations Committee expect to meet through the weekend to try to work out a compromise. But Thibodeau and Gideon said they have a backup plan if they can’t find agreement by Sunday night. That plan would bring the existing Democratic and Republican budget plans up for votes on Money, with the expectation that the House would pass the Democrat plan and the Senate pass the GOP version. They would then form a Conference Committee of three legislators from, each chamber, and that committee would come up with a compromise to be voted on.
Gideon and Thibodeau said such a tactic has never been used before on a state budget, but said it might be the way to move the process forward if nothing else works. Legislators need to pass a budget with a two thirds majority before it can be sent to the Governor, and that same majority would be needed to override an expected veto from the Governor.
Governor Paul LePage also weighed in on the budget Friday, criticizing Democrats for their plan, saying “Democrats plan to balloon state education spending by $250 to $300 million more in the next budget without ensuring more money reaches the classroom is unworkable.”