Having passed its statutory adjournment, the Legislature is struggling to conclude its business, hampered by a feckless governor who vetoes legislation with whimsical abandon, while gridlocked over initiatives enacted last November.

Question 1, marijuana legalization, is bogged down in committee, though no one expects marijuana not to be on sale next year. Question 5, ranked-choice voting, was found by the Maine Supreme Court to be fatally flawed as applied to the November election for governor — the one everybody cares about.

Question 4, the minimum wage increase, was undermined by bipartisan vote, when many Democrats joined all Republicans to take away increases from restaurant servers, on the bizarre theory that paying them more would lead to reduced pay because customers would stop tipping. What really happened is that restaurant owners, with servers in tow, out-lobbied the Maine People’s Alliance, which designed the referendum but failed to effectively defend it.

Then there’s Question 2 — the big one; the one that, in Abraham Lincoln’s memorable phrase, “will light us down in honor, or dishonor.”

It’s straightforward, imposing a 3 percent income tax surcharge on Maine’s top 2 percent, using the money, more than $300 million per biennium, to fully fund the 55 percent state share of qualified local school funding — promised in the landmark 1984 Education Reform Act, enacted into law by voters in 2004, and still unfulfilled.

The measure is law, the tax is being collected, and it seems a simple matter to craft a budget around it. But that’s not, of course, what’s happening.

Republicans have decided they can ignore the law, and, if they hold out long enough, it will go away. The only Republican calling publicly for compromise, Augusta Sen. Roger Katz, hasn’t yet convinced his party to offer one.

Optimistic accounts of negotiations between Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau have created the impression the two sides are “not far apart,” and remaining differences can be easily bridged. That’s not what’s happening.

Thibodeau offers no revenue, only $100 million in surplus — one-time money that won’t be available in the future, thus doing nothing to bridge the gap between the state’s obligation and what it actually pays.

Democrats, meanwhile, have again been negotiating with themselves, offering to lower the surcharge from 3 percent to 1.75 percent, while increasing the income threshold from $200,000 to $300,000, and making up the difference through sales taxes. That’s the regressive alternative to income taxes that some Democrats still embrace as “tax reform.”

The surplus cash Thibodeau offers can’t be taken seriously in fulfilling the school funding mandate. It’s been tried before, and failed.

In 2004, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci responded to the earlier referendum by vowing to “ramp up” to 55 percent over four years, while imposing spending caps on municipal, school, county and state budgets, “ramping” them down. For the first two years, this actually happened.

Baldacci promised $250 million in new funding — $300 million in today’s dollars — which puts Republicans’ “historic” offer of $100 million in perspective.

Instead, the economy crashed, the promise disappeared and, under Baldacci’s successor, Republican Paul LePage, funding fell even farther behind. Instead of funding schools, we’ve had tax cuts disguised as reform, a giant one in 2011 and a smaller one in 2015.

Surely there must be wiggle room to increase rates for top earners, who’ve already had a collective 1.35 percent reduction. But today’s Republican Party insists the wealthy must never pay a dime more in taxes, a principle of near-theological intensity — though the public doesn’t agree.

Nor does the evidence. States raising income taxes recently are doing fine — while the one state that sharply cut them, Kansas, endured a dire school funding crisis. This spring, the overwhelmingly Republican legislature overrode Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto to restore previous rates.

We’re hearing, once again, about the inevitable shutdown unless Democrats throw in the towel and repeal Question 2. This need not happen.

Many states have used continuing resolutions to resolve budget deadlocks, including New Hampshire just two years ago. Maine has, too — in 1967, Gov. Ken Curtis vetoed the budget and lawmakers didn’t reconvene until July. There was no shutdown.

If things are still stalemated next week, House Democrats, pledged to honor Question 2, could pass a continuing resolution and see what the Senate does. If it fails to act, it will be overwhelmingly clear who’s refusing to bargain in good faith.

We’ll know Republicans are serious when they make an offer that provides revenue for future budgets; then, real bargaining can begin. For now, the 3 percent surcharge remains the law, and the onus is squarely on those who seek to change it.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His first book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]


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