AUGUSTA — A special panel of six Maine lawmakers set up to broker a deal on the state’s next two-year budget remained far apart late Wednesday after spending hours behind closed doors meeting with legislative leaders and other lawmakers.

While members spent part of Wednesday morning in the public committee room they broke up around midday and didn’t return until after 7:30 p.m.

The shift to closed-door negotiations came a day after House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, told reporters that the panel would do its work in public.

The committee was set up Tuesday in an effort to break an impasse on whether the Legislature should honor the intent of a voter-approved law that tacked a 3 percent surcharge on household incomes over $200,000 to raise money for public schools.

Democrats, who have fought to keep the surcharge, acknowledged it will likely be repealed but insisted the money it would have generated over the next two-year budget cycle be made up in other ways.

And while there appeared to be some minor movement between negotiators, Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, who represents House Republicans, said one of their chief problems is the total spending in the bill, roughly $7.2 billion. That figure is a moving target but Winsor reiterated his caucus was against sending more funding to public schools without other education reforms.

Winsor also said the caucus wouldn’t support a school-funding increase without cutting other spending. He suggested a key element for Republicans would be a pilot program for a statewide public school teachers’ contract, which was proposed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“We honestly and sincerely believe, and we think you agree too, that educational outcomes must improve,” Winsor said.

The lawmakers are also racing the clock. If a budget isn’t in place by June 30, state government could shut down and lawmakers must allow time for staff to write a budget bill and allow LePage 10 days to review it and decide whether to issue a veto. That means they need a bill for the House and Senate to vote on by Friday or Saturday.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the new budget will include a historic funding boost to public schools. While Democrats have said they want an increase of $200 million to $300 million, Republicans have said their number is closer to $110 million. How either increase would be paid for has not been resolved. The panel was expected to return to the public committee room on Thursday morning.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at:

[email protected]