Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives have painted themselves into a corner in this year’s budget negotiations.

By making a non-negotiable demand of the full repeal of a voter-approved 3 percent surtax on income greater than $200,000, they have put themselves in the position of:

• Ignoring the mandate of the voters in not one but two referendum elections.

• Making a tax cut for the wealthiest 2 percent of Mainers their top priority.

• Forcing local property tax payers to pay more for schools.

That’s probably not the agenda that any of these lawmakers ran on last year. Since they know they won’t find two-thirds support in the House and Senate for such an unpalatable package, they are using their willingness to push the government over the brink of shutdown as leverage, chancing the loss of jobs and state revenue to achieve their goal.


That’s a risky move, and an unnecessary one. There is ample evidence that there is a deal to be made without a shutdown, and they should be ready to take it.

Last fall, voters approved Question 2, making it law. It did two things.

It increased the state’s share of school funding – the part that comes from income and sales tax revenue – to 55 percent of public K-12 education spending (with the balance raised locally through property taxes). And it paid for the increase with a 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000 a year, raising roughly $150 million a year. (All income below $200,000 would still be taxed at the old rates.)

The 55 percent mark was set by voters in a 2004 statewide referendum but has never been reached. This year, the state is paying only 47 percent.

Democrats, like House Speaker Sara Gideon, have strongly advocated for honoring the voters’ 55 percent mandate, but they have been less firm in their commitment to the size of the tax surcharge.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau is an outspoken opponent of the surcharge and wants it repealed, but floated an offer last week of $100 million of unspoken-for revenue that could be pushed toward education over the next two years.


That’s only about one third of what the surtax would raise, and it’s not enough to give local property tax payers a significant break. But it does narrow the gap between the two sides.

On the other hand, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette is holding firm to his untenable position, claiming that the top 2 percent of earners need a tax break more than schools need more state funding. In an op-ed column published last week, he revived ideas like a statewide teacher contract and drastic cuts to school administration as preconditions for a budget deal. These ideas had been dumped on the Legislature last winter by Gov. LePage and, for the most part, rejected through a deliberative process.

If House Republicans are looking to LePage for leadership on this issue, they are out of luck. The governor has long ago signaled that he is happy to make himself irrelevant to the budget process so he can criticize any deal that would be capable of passing a divided Legislature. He announced last week that he would veto any budget that did not incorporate his ideas on education reform. The only surprise there was the notion that there was any chance he wouldn’t veto it. Vetoing this budget, like he vetoed the last two, has been a foregone conclusion since he delivered his budget proposal in January.

Since LePage lacks the skills and inclination to compromise, he cannot help House Republicans get out of the trap they have set for themselves because that demands compromise.

Between Thibodeau’s position and Gideon’s, there is a $220 million gap. Republicans say it should be spent to cut taxes on the wealthiest; Democrats say it should be used to pay for schools.

There is a compromise to be reached, but the two sides are running out of time.

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