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Budget talks moving after House Republicans increase offer

House Republicans moved the needle on getting to a budget compromise and avoiding a government shutdown by offering to increase state aid to schools over the biennium by $125 million – an offer Democrats say is not enough, but one that got budget talks moving again on Thursday.

The House proposal, endorsed by Gov. Paul LePage, puts strings on the money, earmarking $27 million of the total to raise teacher salaries in rural Maine and creating a voluntary pilot of a statewide teachers contract.

There now are three competing proposals for K-12 education funding in the mix. That includes the House Republicans’ latest offer of $125 million, which is up considerably from their original $30 million proposal. Senate Republicans have offered somewhere between $110 and $175 million, depending on whether they can find a viable funding stream for the greater amount. And Democrats have proposed $200 million over the biennium – down from their original proposal of $320 million.

That $320 million is what revenue forecasters say would be raised over the biennium if the tax passed as part of the Question 2 referendum remains on the books. The tax imposes a 3 percent surcharge on incomes greater than $200,000, and includes some small businesses whose owners run them through their personal income tax filings. Question 2, spearheaded by the Maine Education Association, specifically called for using the new tax to meet the state’s obligation to fund 55 percent of public education. Republicans say they will not support any budget that keeps the tax on the books.

“There is still a large gap between us,” said Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon regarding the House Republican proposal, but added, “I want to recognize this was a big move for your caucus.”

Gideon is chairing the special Committee of Conference that is trying to negotiate a budget deal after talks stalled in the Appropriations Committee. The committee, which includes Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau and a bipartisan group of Appropriations Committee members, is meeting today and Saturday to try to come up with a proposal that can pass the full Legislature by June 30 to avoid a government shutdown.

Gideon underscored the budget needs 101 votes from the House and 24 in the Senate to pass – a vote that, if it held, could overcome a governor’s veto.

Debate over the budget will include not only funding amounts, but policy language.

House Republicans want that to include a voluntary statewide teachers contract that was first introduced as legislation that ultimately failed.

The pilot program, as described in the legislation, invites 38 specific districts to participate based on criteria developed by the Department of Education, including a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students and districts whose state share of General Purpose Aid is greater than 60 percent. Other school districts can volunteer to join the pilot.

The bargaining agents would be the state and the Maine Education Association. The state-level negotiation would only be for standard salaries and benefits, and the proposal “does not prohibit the negotiation of salary and benefits in addition to what is negotiated between the state and the bargaining agent.”

On other policy issues, Education Committee Chairman Brian Langley, R-Hancock, and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a member of the Appropriations Committee, are working on language designed to bridge the gap between the two parties and the governor’s office.

That language includes cutting the per-pupil amount for system administration in 2017-2018 from $235 per student to $135. After the initial cut, the rate would go to $138 per student in 2018-2019, but $46 of that amount must be used for participation in regional cooperatives. In 2019-2020, the rate would go to $141, but $94 of that amount must be for regional cooperative participation. In 2020-2021, system administration rates would be determined by the commissioner of education and only school districts that are participating in a regional cooperative would be eligible for funding.

The governor’s original budget proposal eliminated all system administration funding, and that change was included in individual district budget allocations (EDU-279s) sent out earlier this year.

Other proposed policy changes included in their compromise package include:

  • No longer deducting Title I funding from school district allocations – a proposal also included in the governor’s budget.
  • Increasing the weight for economically disadvantaged children from 15 to 20 percent, which would cost an additional $27 million over current funding, and specifying that funding is targeted. That means districts would have to account for and show how the money was spent to help economically disadvantaged students.

Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association members will be updated on budget negotiations as the process moves forward.

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