AUGUSTA, Maine – A small group of lawmakers has the task of coming up with a budget deal over the next few days and averting a government shutdown at the peak of the state's tourism season.
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Lawmakers have arrived at a deadlock on education funding after months of deliberation, and negotiations over a final budget deal in the last few weeks have revealed staunch division among legislative leaders and the 13-member appropriations committee. So, legislative leaders have decided to turn to a rarely used tactic of appointing a six-member committee of lawmakers to meet in public and come up with a strongly supported budget deal in the coming days.
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said the process will be accountable and transparent, and she noted it appears to be the first time lawmakers are resorting to the tactic in budget negotiations. The Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday voted on a swirl of competing budget proposals during a session marked by exasperation and partisan votes.
"While there is a lot of anxiety and frustration and some anger in this room today, I believe it's important we do respect the will of the voters," Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson said as he called for property tax relief and increased education funding.
Republican Sen. James Hamper, who chairs the appropriations committee, introduced a budget deal that failed to attract strong Democratic support.
"There's plenty in this budget to hate and plenty to love," he said. "This is offered in the spirit of compromise."
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The committee's first meeting was set for Tuesday evening, an hour after legislative leaders announced the committee's membership and the meeting itself.
The members are Gideon, Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau and appropriation committee members Democratic Rep. Aaron Frey, Republican Rep. Tom Winsor, Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen and Republican Sen. Roger Katz.
Thibodeau said he's "confident" the committee members "will work tirelessly to find a solution."
A two-year budget must be in place by July 1 to avoid government shutdown. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said the state could use short-term continuing resolutions to delay a shutdown like the U.S. Congress does, a tactic Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills has cast doubt on.
The governor said on a radio show on Tuesday he's "ashamed" to be part of Maine government because of lawmakers' laziness. He added he'll veto any budget over $7 billion, though at this time legislative leaders say the budget will need veto-proof majorities regardless.
The debate over the budget 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.
Republicans are demanding education reforms and a repeal of the voter-approved additional 3 percent surtax on the portion of individual annual income above $200,000, which they say hurts small businesses and professionals.
Meanwhile, Democrats say they won't support any budget that doesn't replace the surtax's estimate revenue of $320 million in additional funding for schools over two years.
Senate Republicans' compromise proposal to nix the surtax and increase education funding by $100 million in the second year of the budget is getting pushback from Democrats who say it amounts to a tax cut on the rich that relies on budgetary gimmicks to reach the 55 percent mark.