Senate GOP’s $100 million school aid offer fails to break Maine budget impasse

Good morning from Augusta, where much of the attention right now is on Maine’s two-year budget, where a “huge gap” remains on education funding even after Senate Republicans came forward on Wednesday to propose $100 million in extra education funding.

But the reception on that pivotal budget issue was more than frosty.

Democrats pooh-poohed it because it’s well short of the $300 million or so estimated to be gained from Maine’s voter-approved surtax on high-income earners — which Republicans want to scrap — and Gov. Paul LePage issued a hasty veto threat in a radio interview today.

It leaves Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, caught in heavy crossfire as the Legislature nears an informal deadline of next week to vote a budget out of the Appropriations Committee in enough time to vote on it and send it to LePage before the session’s June 21 end.

On Wednesday, Thibodeau told reporters that Senate Republicans were proposing $100 million in new education funding in the 2018-2019 budget year, finding the money “within existing resources.”

The breakdown of where that money would come from is unclear: Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a member of the budget committee, said some of it would come from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, while his caucus is also looking at ways to “decrease the size of state government so we can increase funding for public education.”

“I don’t know how anybody can’t recognize this is a tremendous victory for the state of Maine,” Thibodeau said.

But to Democrats, that sounds like “cuts” in other areas of government. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, called that a non-starter, saying, “We don’t think those are acceptable ways to pay for education funding.”

Thibodeau’s also dealing with a Republican split on the issue. Both parties seemed ready to present their education funding ideas at a Tuesday meeting of the budget-writing committee, but Republicans backed down saying there was nothing to present.

And in his Thursday veto threat on WGAN, LePage said “if he thinks you put $100 million into a broken system without fixing it, then it’s just not going to work,” saying “it’s not about more money to education, but more money into the classroom.”

However, the governor seems to wrongly assume that the Senate plan would just add $100 million to the state’s school funding formula, which the surtax would go to with some restrictions about how it is spent. But Thibodeau said he wants to see money earmarked for “bipartisan reforms that I think both sides can agree to.”

And Katz said many of LePage’s own ideas for school reform are in play. Those include a statewide teacher contract and voluntary district consolidation efforts, which Democrats haven’t opposed outright, at least in concept.

Katz said there still are “many, many outstanding issues” outside of education be negotiated between the parties, “but I think most would agree that if we get the education funding and reform out of the way, the rest of it would be easier.”

Senate Republicans’ move seemed at first like a step forward on Wednesday in the absence of other action. But the sides are still dug in with little daylight in sight.

“No, we’re not,” Gideon said when asked on Wednesday if the parties were closer than the day before. “There’s a huge gap between us right now.” — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • A conservative lawmaker’s bid to make Maine police cooperate with federal immigration officials failed in an initial vote on Wednesday. The bill from Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, that would prohibit restricting the enforcement of federal immigration law failed in a 77-59 vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. He referenced the Portland murders of Freddy Akoa and Trey Arsenault at the hands of immigrants, saying his bill would “save lives.” It’s aimed at Portland, which cooperates with federal officials but has a policy of not asking about immigration status. But the bill was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union for civil rights concerns and the Maine Sheriffs Association, which said it would overly burden law enforcement. Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, one of four Republicans vote against the bill, said it would have a “chilling effect” on needed immigration. Lockman’s bill awaits an initial Senate vote and further action, but those are just formalities. It’s dying. — Michael Shepherd
  • The veto train often stops in the House of Representatives. Vetoes by LePage are picking up in frequency. While many are being overridden, the House is the place where they have the best chance of survival. Several votes on Wednesday show the ideological gap between House and Senate Republicans, with vetoes overridden by wide margins in the Senate then sustained in the House, including bills to establish a mattress stewardship program, which was overturned 33-1 in the Senate but sustained 75-61 in the House; aid a landfill closure in Old Town (34-0, then 75-61) and improve data collection on Maine teacher retirement costs (34-0, then 73-60). An exception on Wednesday was the veto of LD 671, which has to do with sentences for operating under the influence. LePage’s veto was overridden 34-0 in the Senate and 110-25 in the House. — Christopher Cousins
  • Ranked-choice voting advocates to rally at State House. Stinging from a unanimous Maine Supreme Judicial Court opinion that the ranked-choice voting system approved by voters in November is unconstitutional, supporters of the system will push their cause at the State House this morning. A statement from Kyle Bailey, who managed the ballot question campaign, calls for lawmakers to “act rationally and respectfully, and take a pragmatic approach to bringing Maine’s RCV law into constitutional compliance.” But the rally is largely for show, as legislative leaders have already moved forward with emergency bills that would either spike ranked-choice voting or trigger a statewide vote to amend the Maine Constitution to remove legal hurdles. Committee hearings on those emergency bills are scheduled for Friday morning. — Robert Long
  • Maine is issuing up to $4.25 million for projects under the Land for Maine’s Future program, allowing the nation’s largest maple sugarbush to apply. The conservation program’s board issued a call for proposals last week after authorizing a new round of funding in May. The highest-profile project likely to apply is the Big Six Forest, the nation’s largest maple sugaring area in Somerset County that has drawn attention for the landowner’s donations to Gov. Paul LePage and leases for producers that are contingent on the award. This money would complete a $5.7 million conservation easement to preserve the property, which produces a quarter of Maine’s syrup. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

The House and Senate calendars are becoming so thick on a daily basis that you need to pour a cup of coffee and set aside a significant portion of your morning to read them. Lucky for you, Daily Brief reader, that was already my plan so you don’t have to.

As we have noted before, bills are bobbling between the chambers and more often than not, dying there. One example of that is another attempt to repeal the certificate of need process hospitals must use to expand services, which passed 18-16 Wednesday in the Senate but it unlikely to find many supporters among Democrats in the House.

Also coming to the fore is a new, old way to kill bills: send them to what is known as the special appropriations table, which is where bills go that require funding. Lawmakers usually divvy up some funding for a few bills off the table at the end of the session, but it’s a fraction of the total. On Wednesday alone, the Senate moved some two dozen bills there.

LePage has tossed at least two new bills into the hopper, according to the House calendar. One would transfer ownership of a dam and water storage facility known as the Forest City Project, located on the East Branch of the St. Croix River in Washington and Aroostook counties, from Woodland Pulp LLC to the state. The other proposes requiring photographic identification to vote, which faces slim odds against a Democratic stone wall that has always existed on this issue.

One interesting bill that could come up for debate today is LD 778, which would chip away at the minimum wage law passed by referendum in November by eliminating the indexing of the minimum wage to inflation. Another is LD 1558, a LePage proposal that would require overdose victims to pay for lifesaving medications on their second or subsequent doses.

In the Senate, the confirmation of LePage’s pick for labor commissioner, John Butera, is on the docket. We don’t expect any problems there. Further down the Senate’s agenda are two bills that could alter the schedule for motor vehicle inspections in Maine, but there was stiff enough resistance at the committee level that they probably have no chance of enactment.

As always, there is more coming up today than we can list here. Legislative leaders and members of the Appropriations Committee are wearing out the hallways between legislative chambers and their offices as they negotiate the biennial budget.

The pressure will build into next week, at the end of which lawmakers are pushing to reach compromise. Keep it tuned to the BDN for major developments. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Love in the Senate chamber

Many of us in the Maine media are friendly toward each other. Maybe friendlier than you think. Yesterday in the Senate, the Portland Press Herald’s Scott Thistle walked by and I blew him a kiss. Scott and I went to the same western Maine high school and as journalists shared an office for a couple of years. We’re pals.

It was supposed to be a private moment, but a Senate staffer saw me blow the kiss at him.

“Wow, you guys in the press corps are pretty close,” she said.

Truth. Scott agrees. When I tweeted about it he responded with one word: “Swoon.” Here’s our soundtrack. — 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.