AUGUSTA (AP) — As lawmakers spend the weekend haggling over the budget behind closed doors, Gov. Paul LePage said this week that he’ll veto any budget that increases education funding without big changes to the system.

Democrats and Republicans remain at odds on the Republican governor’s $6.8 billion, two-year budget proposal, with both parties this week recently accusing the other of threatening a government shutdown. Meanwhile, Republican legislative leaders asked about such a prospect are repeating the same mantra to reporters: “Cooler heads will prevail.”

“It’s going to be a long, tough fight before it’s done,” said Republican House Leader Ken Fredette.

The deadline for a budget is the end of the month, and legislative leaders want a deal by mid-June to give legislators time to peruse the details.

Months after the Legislature first began holding public hearings on LePage’s budget proposal, a major sticking point remains the voter-approved 3 percent surtax on household income above $200,000 to raise revenues for classrooms. The debate swirls around the state of Maine’s tax revenues, and whether that surtax will dampen hearty revenues projected in years to come.

Following concerns from Republicans that the surtax is already driving away business leaders and professionals, several Democrats have said they’re willing to remove the tax. But they would only agree to that, Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said, if Republicans provide another way to reach the requirement that voters approved in 2004 to require the state to fund 55 percent of local education costs.

This week, Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau released a proposal that he says will reach the 55 percent target by nixing the tax and relying on remaining tax revenues to provide $100 million in education funding in the second year of the budget.

“We’re able to make the significant investment because our economy’s doing well, we’ve seen a turnaround in the economy,” he said Friday.

But Democrats say Thibodeau’s proposal falls far short of the estimated $320 million in funding they say that the surtax will generate over two years. Republicans who call the surtax anti-business have said that Democrats are exaggerating such revenue estimates, and they point to a state economic forecast suggesting that the surtax may already be impacting how high-earners report their income.

Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen argued the forecast shows that overall, “the current financial picture is not one of scarcity.”

“We have a hearty surplus predicted,” she said. “Voters demanded a sustainable source of funding to meet the state’s obligation for the cost of K-12 education across Maine.”

Breen further claimed Thibodeau’s proposal uses “accounting tricks” to get to 55 percent. Thibodeau said his proposal follows the formula outlined in Maine law.

Republicans, including appropriations committee member Sen. Roger Katz, want support for reform efforts backed by LePage, such as a statewide teacher contract, and support for school districts that consolidate services.

LePage, who is expected to veto the budget, also questioned Thibodeau’s proposal during a Thursday radio call-in.

The governor said that more money alone is not enough to fix Maine schools, which face declining enrollment and rising per-pupil costs.

Paul LePage
Gov. Paul LePage
Maine Gov. Paul LePage pauses during a meeting to discuss the state’s efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
AP

Maine Gov. Paul LePage pauses during a meeting to discuss the state’s efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
The meeting includes relatives of those struggling with addiction as well as representatives from the recovery community, drug treatment specialists and law enforcement officials. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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