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As Budget Deadline Nears, Maine Lawmakers Still Wrestling With School Funding

Mal Leary
Maine Public
Members of the group Fund our Damn Schools take to the halls of the State House Wednesday to make their case for more school funding.

Members of the Legislature’s budget writing committee are supposed to complete work on the state’s two-year budget by next week. Even as lobbying intensifies at the State House, Republicans and Democrats are still at odds over the key issue of school funding.

Supporters of additional funding for local schools took their message directly to the halls of the State House Wednesday.

“Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Only fools don’t fund our schools,” they chanted.

Supporters spent the morning buttonholing lawmakers to try to convince them that a voter-approved surtax on households making more than $200,000 a year should get their support.

“And I just felt that is was time for citizens to raise our voices because we need it. It’s not happening and it needs to happen now,” says Liz Smith from Camden, one of the organizers of a group calling itself Fund Our Damn Schools.

Several members of the group blasted lawmakers who are talking about repealing the surtax. They point out that Maine voters have twice gone to the polls to say they want more money for education.

For years the state has failed to meet its funding obligation to chip in 55 percent. And that remains a key sticking point.

State law provides two different ways to calculate the 55 percent goal. One factors in teacher retirement costs and one excludes them.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta says his Republican colleagues on the Appropriations Committee are ready to propose a way to get to the 55 percent target.

“We will be coming forth with a budget proposal which will get us to 55 percent. I hope that is important to people. But we will get to that 55 percent,” he says.

Republicans declined to share how they will reach that figure. But they acknowledged that it does not include teacher requirement. And they are adamant that the income tax surcharge be repealed.

Republican Rep. Tom Winsor of Norway says the Legislature came very close to reaching the 55 percent goal just before the recession hit in 2009.

“We are out of recession now, we have the budget at HHS under control, I think we are in much better position than we were a decade ago. So, can we meet what I think has been the statutory responsibility? Sure,” he says.

But Democrats reject that approach. Rep. John Martin, a Democrat from Eagle Lake and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, says what matters is that schools are properly funded, not where the money comes from.

“If you think that we should not do the 3 percent, tell me why. Prove to me it can be something else. Don’t talk to me about 55 percent. I could care less,” he says.

Another Democratic panel member, Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth, says voters are telling her they’re tired of dealing with rising property tax bills to pay for local schools and that the state should contribute more of the funding.

“What we heard from Question 2 was that property taxpayers wanted the state to pick up more of the cost of educating our kids in the classroom,” she says.

There is a lot of pressure on the committee, and on legislative leadership. Even if lawmakers reach agreement by next week, it takes days to get the hundreds of pages of a budget bill printed for all lawmakers to review.

It’s also expected that the governor will veto the measure. And the current budget runs out at the end of June.