Maine budget negotiators remain far apart on school funding

Good morning from Augusta, where a Tuesday meeting of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee showed just how far apart Democrats and Republicans are on education funding with a key deadline on the state’s two-year budget looming in less than a week.

After closed-door partisan caucuses over the Memorial Day weekend, the committee met yesterday to take votes on agreed-upon items in the budget, although Democrats said before the meeting that the parties would also discuss their education funding proposals.

Education is the big issue in these sensitive budget negotiations. Republicans say they won’t accept a budget that doesn’t repeal the voter-approved surtax on incomes over $200,000 to fund education. Most Democrats say they won’t accept one not funding 55 percent of basic K-12 education costs, a standard set by voters in 2004 that the state hasn’t yet met.

But after a period of confusion, Democrats were the only ones to present their plan, proposing $2.2 billion. Democratic aides said Republicans initially agreed to discuss theirs. However, Rep. Tom Winsor of Norway, the lead House Republican on the panel, said after the meeting that Democrats tried “put us into a corner” for a debate on the issue.

He added that “the caucus plan is the governor’s plan, if you really want to be blunt about it,” even though Republicans have gone along with some changes already.

Winsor said there are still fundamental disagreements with Democrats on issues as big as the surtax that Republicans believe will make Maine less competitive economically, but also as granular as performance measures to ensure that increased funding is being used well.

There’s yet another wrinkle: Maine law effectively has two different ways to calculate the 55 percent — one with teacher retirement costs included and one without them — and Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Republicans will be “coming forth with a budget proposal which will get us to 55 percent” by the first measure, which is easier for the state to hit.

However, Democrats and the Maine Education Association, a teachers union, argue that the more permissive threshold shouldn’t be used because retirement costs have never been part of the school assessment given to cities and towns.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, was having none of that debate, pressing Republicans to outline their plan to increase education funding, saying if they don’t like the surtax, they should “prove to me that it could be something else, but don’t come talk to me about 55 percent — I could care less.”

“The 3 percent is what the voters said we had to do,” he said. “Short of that, then we’re not going along with the voters.”

Does that seem like a weedy mess? Well, it is.

And just to ramp up the pressure, the Legislature is dealing with an informal June 5 deadline — that’s Monday — to get a budget out of this committee, giving it time to be drafted, voted on and sent to the governor before scheduled adjournment on June 21. We’re not close on this signature issue. — Michael Shepherd

Correction: An earlier version of this item had an incorrect reference to Republicans’ preferred 55 percent calculation. 

Hallowell lobbyist becomes third Democrat to run for governor

As expected, Hallowell lobbyist Betsy Sweet filed Tuesday to run for governor in 2018, issuing a news release saying she’s “not part of the political establishment” while referencing a lobbying and advocacy career dating back to the 1980s.

“I think I’m the sweet spot — if you will — between not experienced and being part of what I think needs to change,” she said in an interview.

Sweet, 60, filed to run as a Clean Election candidate. She said she’ll start actively campaigning in October and filed to begin collecting seed money for her run.

Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, sniped at her on Twitter, saying, “Can we please not have lobbyists run for Governor? It’s the epitome of what’s wrong with the system.”

As for Sweet’s spot in the already-announced Democratic field, she probably sits behind Sanford attorney Adam Cote and ahead of newcomer Patrick Eisenhart of Augusta. But Attorney General Janet Mills and others are still mulling runs, so things will get sliced and diced more. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Rally at State House today to “fund our damn schools.” A group called Progressive Women of Maine will host a rally targeting Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers who don’t support the 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 a year that was created by referendum last year in support of public schools. The organizers, in a Facebook post, explained their use of the word “damn” this way: “We believe the gravity of this situation calls for using this language. … However, if you would like a rally meme/photo that says “Fund our Schools!!” without the swear word, please contact us.” The damn rally begins at 9 a.m. at the State House. — Christopher Cousins
  • House defeats local-option sales tax, again. Among the rather lengthy list of legislative proposals that come back session after session is the creation of a local-option sales tax that would let larger, hub communities implement their own sales tax in addition to what the state levies as a way of underwriting their roles as service centers. Proposed by Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, the bill would have let municipalities do that by local referendum. But it won’t come to pass anytime soon following a 73-69 vote against it Tuesday in the House following some debate. — Christopher Cousins
  • If you want to vote, you’re going to have to register yourself. Government won’t do it for you. Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, wanted Mainers to be enrolled to vote, if they are eligible, whenever they have any contact with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, though there is an opt-out clause in Golden’s bill. While Democrats cast the proposal as part of doing anything they can to encourage voting, some Republicans viewed it as an invasion of privacy and personal rights. The bill passed last week in the House, 74-68, but failed 20-15 Tuesday in the Senate. That puts the two chambers in disagreement or “nonconcurrence,” as it is known in legislative rules, which as we’ve said before is where many bills go to die in the Maine Legislature. The bill is back to the House this morning, but it’s a formality. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

Another day in Augusta brings more gubernatorial vetoes according to the House calendar. LePage doesn’t approve of LD 488, which would let larger grocery stores open on Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas. In his veto letter, which you can see in the House calendar, LePage said blue laws like this one should be repealed altogether and not just for certain retailers.

According to earlier votes, the bill doesn’t have enough support to override LePage’s veto, so it looks like you’ll be searching for brown sugar or baking powder at a convenience store or gas station next Thanksgiving morning. Good luck.

LePage also vetoed LD 1023, which (we are not making this up) would exempt baling twine from the sales tax. LePage doesn’t like the bill because it doesn’t jive with his vision of a broader sales tax code that focuses on consumption. The bill received unanimous support, so we’ll see what happens.

The House will also consider a joint resolution that would pressure the U.S. Congress to negotiate better trade agreements with the European Union that would equalize the market for lobsters coming from the U.S. and Canada. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which is en route to possible approval by Europe and Canada, would give Canada the edge and put the domestic lobster market in a pinch. There is a lengthy list of other bills in the hopper; check them out by clicking here.

Over in the Senate, the situation is the same: moving dozens of bills to either their deaths or LePage’s desk, which in some cases are one and the same. There are four vetoes to be considered by the Senate today.

  • LD 349, An Act to Establish a Mattress Stewardship Program, which isn’t what it sounds like. Here’s your soundtrack anyway. The bill would create the Mattress Recycling Grant Fund with $5 recycling fees on new mattresses, which would be used for a grant program for mattress recycling. LePage argues in his veto letter against the $5 fee, which he said would put border furniture retailers at a disadvantage.
  • LD 576 has to do with who pays landfill closure costs for the Old Town landfill. LePage argues it would be too expensive for municipalities and the state.
  • LD 671, which would reduce penalties for people caught drunk driving but who plead to lesser charges. LePage doesn’t agree with reducing penalties.
  • LD 1045, which calls for study of and reporting of teacher retirement costs to the state every other year with the intention of basing payments on better data. LePage argues that the study couldn’t be accomplished within existing resources and that the bill is a step toward the state taking on the full cost.

This morning’s Daily Brief is getting long so if you’re interested in the rest of the Senate’s business today, check it out for yourself. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Ear protection cannot be overrated

Politics has always been a dangerous endeavor, and it’s not just duels, campaign riots and late-night State House dust-ups that place a politician’s health in jeopardy. One need look no farther than Belgium — OK, that is 3,298 miles away, but stay with us — for another example of the perils of politics.

Belgian (Why isn’t this Belch?) Prime Minister Charles Michel suffered hearing loss last weekend after Princess Astrid fired a starter’s pistol for a road race too close to his unprotected ears. The Washington Post noted that the injury occurred less than a week after U.S. President Donald Trump “bent his ear” about how difficult it is to build golf courses in Belgium. Michel reportedly is still undergoing treatment for ringing in his ears.

Contrary to what some politicians and their operatives might believe, we at Daily Brief do not derive enjoyment from the suffering of politicians. And we take ear protection very seriously, especially given that Christopher Cousins is now proudly touting his moniker as the “Spinal Tap guitarist of Maine politics.”

As a public service, we remind readers to wear proper ear protection at all times when decibel levels might become unhealthy, such as when mowing the lawn, attending a waterfront concert, monitoring State House floor debate … or listening to Cousins sing. Here is his soundtrack. Here is yours. — Robert Long

My stories go to 11. — Christopher Cousins

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.