AUGUSTA, Maine — A small group of Maine lawmakers on Wednesday began hashing out a budget deal that lawmakers could vote on this week as a July 1 deadline looms for having a two-year budget in place.
The debate centers on the state’s declining number of public school students and demands by voters that state government finally fulfill its obligation to provide 55 percent of education funding to ease the burden on local communities.
At issue is a 3 percent voter-approved surtax on the portion of individual annual income above $200,000. At a time of divisions among both Republicans and Democrats about a path forward, a small group of lawmakers on Wednesday signaled that the surtax may be rolled back or nixed under any deal that’s reached.
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon proposed last week to meet the 55 percent threshold by rolling back the surtax to 1.75 percent and increasing the threshold to $300,000 to bring in $250 million. Other Democrats have been pushing to keep the surtax intact, which Democratic Sen. Justin Chenette said Tuesday is expected to bring in $320 million over two years.
On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen, part of the six-member committee of lawmakers tasked with assembling a budget deal, said that she wants a renewable source of revenue for K-12 education. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Tom Winsor said he wants to “craft something that will be sustainable” to provide services while limiting “new stuff I don’t think we can continue to maintain.”
Democratic Rep. Aaron Frey said if there’s no stable replacement for funding, “we’re really setting ourselves up for problems in the future.”
Winsor and Republican Sen. Roger Katz said that the Constitution gives the Legislature the power of taxation, while also allowing lawmakers to change or repeal voter-approved laws.
Katz added that whatever happens, Maine will see its largest increase in education spending — a sentiment that’s been echoed by fellow committee member Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau.
But other Republicans, including GOP Gov. Paul LePage, have called for an outright repeal of the surtax, which they say hurts small businesses and professionals.
A spokesman for Republican House Leader Ken Fredette’s office said Wednesday that House Republicans are only supporting a complete repeal of the surtax.
The six-member committee of lawmakers on Wednesday also looked at potential education initiatives, like a voluntary pilot program allowing the state to negotiate contracts for school units, which Republicans want before lawmakers approve more education spending.
The committee met in public early Wednesday morning and then took a break mid-day, with plans to return to a public meeting later in the day. Gideon had said the rarely used six-member committee of conference process would be transparent and accountable.
Any budget deal will require two-thirds support from the House and Senate to avoid a governmental shutdown at the peak of the state’s tourism season. The 151-member House has 75 Democrats, 71 Republicans and five independent or unenrolled lawmakers. The Republican-controlled Senate has 18 Republicans and 17 Democrats.