Getting education done right

The Maine Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee was close to running up the white flag last week. The parties were in their respective corners, with a chasm between their positions on school funding.

The stalemate has been well-rehearsed. A citizen initiative approved last fall would require the state to pay 55 percent of total education costs. Déjà vu? A similar referendum was passed in 2003, to little avail.

Education funding has been increased but has never reached the 55 percent goal.

This debate is not for the faint of heart. School funding is both complicated and controversial. For starters, there is not even agreement on what “total” means. And remember, 55 percent applies to the statewide cost of running our schools. An individual school may receive over 90 percent or as little as 5 percent.

The most recent referendum places a tax surcharge on income above $200,000 to raise approximately $150 million dedicated to school funding. The referendum passed by a narrow margin, but it passed. Hence, the howls of outrage over efforts by the governor and Republican legislators to delay.

Republicans were opposed from the get-go, vowing to get rid of the surcharge and find another source for the funding. But $150 million is not nothing. Not only do they need another funding source, they need it to be ongoing. Identifying money for just one year does not serve.

So far, Republicans have not been able to identify an alternative funding source acceptable to Democrats. Most recently, the R’s offered up $100 million, less than the tax surcharge (though according to Senate President Mike Thibodeau enough to get us to 55 percent) but “ongoing” based on revenue projections for the next biennial budget, or possibly on unidentified cuts in several other program lines.

Democrats sniffed it, lifted their skirts and stepped across the proposal’s corpse. Thibodeau, who proved himself a skilled negotiator over the past three years, put his political capital on the line to no avail. Thibodeau has learned not to rely on House Republicans, and this was no exception. Said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, “There is no deal.”

Gov. Paul LePage, on the other hand, praised his Republican comrade-in-arms for a creative attempt to improve school funding while meeting party hopes for a leaner government. No, wait. What the governor really said was that if Thibodeau “thinks you put $100 million into a broken system without fixing it, then it’s just not going to work.”

The impasse creates two big problems. First, it jeopardizes the timely conclusion of this year’s legislative session. That means a state shutdown, since expenditures are not authorized beyond the end of the fiscal year (June 30). Adjournment is slated for June 21, but that does not mean the troops have two more weeks to resolve the standoff.

It is only after a budget is agreed upon that the Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR) can begin the arduous process of writing up the final result. The budget originally submitted by the governor has undergone massive changes. Every single one of them must be incorporated, and the impact of each change on every other line of the budget must be reconciled.

During this time, OFPR staff foregoes food and sleep, stumbling red-eyed through 20-hour days, yet still manages to produce a nearly flawless document under inhuman working conditions. OFPR, you rock.

The legislature decrees (wisely) that a bill may not be considered on the floor until it is in print, and the printing process itself takes several days for this lengthy document. Next comes floor debate, and that is where we reap the bitter harvest of a less-than-unanimous budget.

Though the Appropriations Committee is the seat of stark ideological differences, it also is the home of the 13 legislators who know the budget better than all their colleagues put together. A well-run committee develops a sense of, if not teamwork, then at least collegiality as they wade through thousands of pages of numbers and sit through countless hours of testimony.

There is an understanding of the importance of reaching agreement on a budget, and a real sense of accomplishment when a committee is able to send a unanimous budget to the floor. Then, committee members will stand to “indefinitely postpone” (kill) any floor amendments proposed by other legislators, even of their own party.

A budget that goes to the floor divided along party lines is in for a Nantucket sleighride, strapped to the backs of irritated legislators who offer amendments from the ridiculous to the sublime. It is their last chance to weasel something that the committee rejected back into the budget, and debate can go on for days.

Our governor, for whom discretion is not the better part of valor, would be the last person to take an eventual legislative budget agreement, sign it and get everyone out of Dodge. If he vetoes the budget, the Legislature must go back at it and achieve another two-thirds vote to override.

The stakes are high, but the issues are worthy. Tax policy and school funding are fundamental to Maine’s future. Let’s hope they get it right.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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