AUGUSTA — State House leaders said Monday they had basically agreed to disagree on the state’s next two-year budget and will move forward with a process that will lead to a smaller group of negotiators hammering out a final budget deal to break a roughly six-month impasse on a what is expected to be about a $7 billion spending package.

Republicans and Democrats have been at odds over how to increase funding for public schools. Democrats say a voter-passed ballot measure that added a 3 percent surcharge to household income over $200,000 should be left in place, while Republicans have rejected that, insisting the surcharge law will hurt Maine small businesses and should be repealed.

With no real debate, the House voted 81-64 Monday to pass the Democratic budget plan largely along party lines. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote out its version of the budget Tuesday, setting up the official impasse. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, need to assign members to the committee of conference, which will have less than half the members of the 13-member budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

During a Democratic caucus meeting ahead of the vote, Gideon explained that neither she nor Thibodeau had settled on who would be assigned to that committee, but they intended for it to be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with the Senate sending two Republicans and one Democrat to the panel and the House sending two Democrats and one Republican.

Under the Legislature’s joint rules, only lawmakers who voted on the prevailing side can be assigned to the conference, which explains why only three House Republicans voted for the Democratic bill Monday, largely as a matter of procedure. A similar vote will likely unfold in the Senate, with only one or two Democrats supporting the Republican plan in order to ensure a seat at the table for Senate Democrats.

The practice of moving to a committee of conference to resolve caucus disagreements on important bills that lawmakers agree should be enacted has seldom been used for the state budget. But Gideon and Thibodeau both said they agreed it may be the Legislature’s best chance for getting a budget deal that can garner two-thirds support of the Legislature, which will be needed for the law to go into effect July 1, when the current budget expires.

Lawmakers are also prepping for a possible veto of the budget by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who said if it stops short of repealing the 3 percent surcharge and doesn’t enact specific education reforms he’s asked for, he will veto the measure. Two-thirds of the Legislature would also have to vote to overturn a veto of the budget for it to go into effect. LePage has 10 days to consider any bill before signing it, vetoing it or allowing it to become law without his signature, which means the Legislature needs to put a final budget on his desk by June 19 or 20 or risk at least a partial state government shutdown.

Thibodeau said that ideally, the budget conference committee members will be appointed and start their work as early as Tuesday night. During a talk with her Democratic caucus Monday afternoon, Gideon said she was hopeful that a final budget would be sent to LePage by late Friday night or early Saturday morning. Thibodeau said he hoped the conference committee would reach a deal by Thursday.

Both said they agreed that the Appropriations Committee had done the best job it could representing the various caucus positions, but now they wanted to narrow the number negotiating and make sure that the group was under the public eye as if worked on a compromise.

“People may be feeling very anxious about going through a process that is not usual,” Gideon said. “I understand that and I feel that way, too, on one hand. On the other hand, I absolutely believe in our ability to do this – to come to an agreement, to compromise in a way that does not throw our values out the window and to do our jobs and to do it in the time frame that we have to do.”

ENTERING ‘UNCHARTED TERRITORY’

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook and House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told the House that the budget it was voting on Monday honored the will of Maine voters, who have twice passed citizen initiatives to require the state to fund 55 percent of the cost of public education in Maine.

“This budget honors the intention, made twice by the voters, to fully fund the state’s share of K-12 public education so that every kid regardless of their ZIP code receives the excellent education that prepares them for success in today’s world and with the understanding that every new dollar goes directly to the classroom for our teachers and their students,” Gattine said. “This budget delivers the property tax relief needed so desperately by so many. For years, homeowners have seen their property tax rates skyrocket to cover the state’s share of education and essential services have been ignored.”

Gattine described Monday’s vote as “another step in that process” to pass a budget by June 30 after members of the Appropriations Committee failed to coalesce behind a single proposal.

“We are about to enter uncharted territory, but we must do so with purpose, with transparency and with accountability and with the voice of Maine people ringing in our ears,” Gattine said.

Thibodeau said he expected the Senate would get the House budget bill Tuesday, quickly vote it down and replace it with the Republican bill, which eliminates the surcharge but still boosts public school funding. He said the committee of conference was inevitable and would be created as quickly as possible.

Thibodeau seemed to agree with Gideon that the lawmakers who are assigned to the conference committee would be selected based on their willingness to find common ground and negotiate.

“Hopefully we can find something that everybody can vote for,” Thibodeau said. And referring to the number of members in the Legislature, he added, “It certainly won’t be perfect, because there are 186 different ideas as to what perfect is at this point, but hopefully it’s something that enough people can support and we will have a budget.”

CRITICISM OF GIDEON’S TACTICS

But after the House vote Monday, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, took aim at Gideon for running a budget bill that had no real chance of becoming law.

“As negotiations on a two-year budget continue, House Republicans are stunned with the speaker’s decision to run a partisan caucus budget that has no chance of garnering the votes necessary to pass,” Fredette said in a prepared statement. “Running this budget, knowing there is no chance of it passing, is not only a waste of time, but illustrates a lack of leadership at a time when all of our efforts and energy should be focused on negotiating a budget that can achieve the necessary support in the Legislature.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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