AUGUSTA — With no agreement in sight on the next state budget and a government shutdown looming, the Legislature adjourned for the weekend Friday, sending most lawmakers home for Father’s Day.

Sticking around the State House were the leaders of the four caucuses, including House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport; House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Thibodeau said Friday afternoon that the leaders were planning to meet Saturday morning and “hopefully make some progress.”

But time is running out, as a budget bill would have to be submitted to Gov. Paul LePage by Saturday in order to allow the 10 business days required for him to act on it before June 30, when the current budget expires at the end of the fiscal year.

Like most states, Maine’s constitution requires the Legislature to enact a balanced budget or the government shuts down.

But even LePage, who met with caucus leaders Friday morning, seemed to have little influence in a stalemate that has lawmakers in a partisan impasse over a spending package of about $7 billion.

And while Republican staff has been working behind the scenes with lawmakers, the governor himself has remained largely absent from negotiations until now.

On Thursday, Fredette told reporters that the only way forward for a budget was with LePage’s support, but Democrats are wary that LePage’s demands may be more than they or their constituents can accept.

At a news conference Friday, Gideon said Fredette and House Republicans had largely boycotted negotiations with the other three factions, including Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats and House Democrats. The biggest sticking point remains how much funding the state should send to Maine public schools and how to pay for it.

Gideon said Thursday that the Republican majority in the Senate and the Democratic majority in the House had moved to within $25 million of an agreement. But by the end of the day Friday, Senate Republicans were saying the gap was closer to $60 million.

While that’s not an insurmountable number, the House Republican minority and LePage are holding out for income tax reductions and education spending reforms. They say those steps are needed to keep the economy healthy and to streamline Maine’s public school system, which has seen costs increase while enrollment declines.

The state isn’t facing a revenue shortfall as it has in previous budget cycles, and agreement on a budget has been held up largely over a voter-enacted law that tacked a 3 percent tax surcharge on household income over $200,000. The new surcharge is meant to raise revenues to ensure that the state pays 55 percent of the costs of public schools. That funding level was mandated by voters in 2001, but it has never been reached by the Legislature.

The new tax surcharge would send an additional $325 million to schools. Senate Republicans have offered about $110 million for schools, but the tax surcharge would have to be eliminated. And House Republicans are saying they won’t support a spending increase of more than $50 million for the public school system.

LePage’s budget proposal, offered in January, expands some sales taxes in order to offset income tax cuts. His plan includes a reduction in the underlying tax rate for high-income earners, effectively offsetting the 3 percent surcharge. His budget package also would fund only classroom costs for public schools and leave the expense of administration to local taxpayers. LePage has long argued that there are too many school administrators.

Republicans and Democrats also disagree on how much the state should spend in total on the new budget.

LePage and legislative leaders met for just over an hour Friday, but there were no new developments and no headway made in the budget standoff.

“It’s clear the Democrats are not happy to have the governor at the table, but they better get used to it because he is going to be there,” said Rob Poindexter, a spokesman for Fredette and the House Republican caucus.

“This morning, we had a very frank conversation about the two-year budget currently being negotiated,” Fredette said of the meeting with LePage in a prepared statement. “I look forward to additional meetings between the four leaders and the administration as we work toward enacting a state budget that continues to move Maine forward.”

Gideon had a different description, saying that until Friday LePage had been largely absent from the budget process. “Having a meeting the morning after the deadline we set for ourselves to have an agreement is not particularly helpful,” Gideon said. “Additionally there are demands being put on the table which really aren’t reasonable for where three of the four caucuses are at, at this point.”

Meanwhile, some House Democrats said they were standing firm against repealing the 3 percent tax surcharge because they were opposed on principle to overturning any of the ballot measures voters enacted last fall.

Jackson, the minority leader from Allagash, said Democrats had moved substantially on a number of issues.

“But on education something is going to have to give,” he said. “We have already conceded on part of it, but I think it’s a big deal to keep some form of the surcharge.”

He said Democrats were rejecting LePage’s tax cuts outright.

If the Legislature hopes to pass a budget that doesn’t include key provisions sought by LePage, then it needs to cobble together a two-thirds majority coalition of Republicans and Democrats that could override a veto.

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

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