UPDATE: Legislators adjured just before 1 a.m. They could not reach an agreement on the proposed budget. They have until the end of June to agree on a final budget plan.
AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Under the State House dome, legislators are still struggling to find a compromise on a new state budget. And some party leaders admit they're worried. Compromise, on the big issues, has been hard to find so far.
Lawmakers on Wednesday received some partisan encouragement as the activist group Progressive Women of Maine brought about 50 people to demand legislators increase funding for public schools. That funding was mandated by voters when they passed referendum Question 2 last November. It created a new, 3 percent surtax on incomes above $200,000 to raise more money for K-12 schools.
That tax and the funding are now keys to passing a new budget. Republicans are demanding the tax be repealed, saying it is damaging Maine's economy. Democrats are demanding a big increase in school funding, with or without the tax.
The budget talks in the legislature's Appropriations Committee have been at an impasse over the issue, but on Wednesday the two top leaders of the legislature started publicly talking numbers.
Speaker of the House Sara Gideon said Democrats are willing to forgo the 3 percent tax but still want the same amount of money going to schools.
"Question 2 raises $320 million over the biennium, over two years, and that’s what we’re looking for absolutely," Speaker Gideon said.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau said Republicans also want to increase school funding but by a much smaller amount.
"We are able to hit that 55 percent number by putting in essentially $100 million," Senate President Thibodeau said. "Republicans are gonna do that, in the second year [of the budget.]"
The goal of having the state pay 55 percent of school costs was set by voters in 2004 but has never been reached. And while both parties say their funding plans would achieve 55 percent, they have different definitions of what the 55 percent number should be, adding one more debate to the budget fight.
Lawmakers are under mounting pressure to complete a budget. Under Maine's constitution, the new, two-year budget must be finally passed by June 30 to keep state government from shutting down.
But Sen. Thibodeau said merging that mark requires legislators to pass the budget by June 15 to allow time for Gov. LePage's expected veto and then an override vote.
To pass a budget, the legislature must get a two-thirds majority vote, which requires significant support from both parties. The two leaders said they believe they can achieve it but admit there is significant work still to be done.