AUGUSTA — The “Brian and Brian show” has been a bright spot in the ongoing, contentious debate over the biennial state budget.
State Sen. Brian Langley, a Republican who represents Hancock County, and Rep. Brian Hubbell, a Democrat whose district includes Bar Harbor, Mount Desert and Lamoine, worked together on a set of education policy proposals they’re hoping will be included in any budget legislation.
Their proposal would increase funding to schools with higher percentages of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of household poverty, and incentivize rural schools and districts to “regionalize” services such as busing or bookkeeping.
The two lawmakers have worked closely together on education issues for years. They have been House and Senate chairs, respectively, of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. This session, Hubbell was appointed to the Appropriations Committee. Some of the policy proposals that came to Langley’s committee as separate bills will likely be included in the final budget bill, thanks to a proposal they crafted together.
“My caucus has asked me to represent their interests in the negotiations, and Hubbell’s [Democratic House] leadership has done the same thing,” Langley said. With 27 years’ experience as a teacher and administrator at the Hancock County Technical Center, Langley said, “I feel I can represent the classroom side of things. Hubbell represents the school board and taxpayer side of it. We can accomplish quite a bit.”
One of their starting points was the governor’s proposed budget, which cut the entire allocation that goes to school system administration, about $40 million. They also anticipated some increase in state funding for schools following the Question 2 referendum last year, which was narrowly approved by the voters.
That referendum, a 3 percent surtax on the portion of any household income exceeding $200,000, earmarked for education, is one of the issues at the center of the current budget quagmire that may result in a government shutdown next week. But Hubbell and Langley’s proposal had a slightly different focus.
“We set aside discussion of the overall funding level,” Hubbell said of their work on this proposal. “We worked on a set of policy changes that would support a large increase of state subsidy but also things that would be difficult to enact if there wasn’t a bump in funding.”
Langley agreed. “If you put reforms in without any additional money, every legislator looks at spreadsheet for their subsidies in their districts,” he said. “If it’s in the red, they’ll vote no. If it’s in the black, they vote yes.”
They wanted to assure school districts that they weren’t tinkering with the allocation formula, and hoped overall state funding would increase enough that no district would be worse off.
“We restored the $40 million for system administration” taken out in the governor’s proposal, Hubbell said.
Then they added an “economic advantage adjustment,” a way to increase per-pupil allocation for students eligible for free and reduced price lunch. But that added $27.5 million to the appropriation needed.
“To pay for it, we reduced the system administration allocation by a third, targeted to support districts that are participating in these regionalized services.”
“Regionalization” is seen as a softer approach to the famous “forced consolidation” imposed on schools in years past.
“School districts can pick from a number of different structures to suit their local needs and then receive their state support,” Hubbell said. “Because our proposal has regionalization at the center, as I understand it, it serves the governor’s interests in that respect.”
The other way they paid for additional money to poorer districts was by changing the way enrollment is counted.
“We eliminated what was called the declining enrollment adjustment, which allowed districts to receive an allocation based on either current enrollment or average of past three years,” Hubbell said. “That should provide some stability – the calculation will now be based on a two-year average of actual enrollment.”
Langley said the pair largely sees eye to eye on what will benefit students, even if their votes may cancel each other out on a whole host of other issues.
“The reason why I think we work so well together is because I trust that he never lies to me, and I never lie to him,” he said. “It’s incredibly important for me to have somebody on the other side of the aisle that I can have that kind of relationship with.”