Maine lawmakers start cramming on how to pay teachers

A core priority of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposals to reform Maine’s public education system will face its first big public test this afternoon at the State House when a bill to create a statewide teachers contract is introduced to the Legislature’s Education Committee.

LD 864 would establish a single contract for all public school teachers, as well as a common pay scale for all, by Jan. 1, 2021. If the bill passes, the Department of Administrative and Financial Services would be required to develop a plan to implement that by January of next year for consideration by the 128th Legislature in the second year of its session.

The concept is one element of a very aggressive education reform package proposed by LePage in his biennial budget proposal. In effect, the measure would take contract negotiations away from local school boards and equalize base teacher pay across the state. LePage has often said teachers in Maine deserve more pay but has declined to say how much he thinks they should make.

Others have some thoughts about that. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has brought back a bill she attempted last session. Among other things, LD 818 would create new thresholds for teacher qualifications and establish a minimum teacher salary of $40,000 a year. That bill was presented to lawmakers on Wednesday.

LePage and his education commissioner, Robert Hasson, have said where salaries should be set is a matter to be negotiated. It’s hard to say what will happen with this bill but some members of both parties have indicated some support for the concept, though it’s likely lawmakers will try to incorporate elements from Millett’s proposal, which as bills go this session is one of the higher-profile ones offered by Democrats.

LePage focused on the bill in his weekly radio address.

“This is especially important in rural and disadvantaged schools where there is high turnover because they are unable to compete with higher salaries in wealthier districts,” said LePage. “A statewide teacher’s contract will enable excellent, properly paid, professional educators for every classroom and student in the state of Maine.”

In the end, the fate of this bill could come down to the usual questions around funding. It’s hard to imagine that in the implementation of a statewide contract and uniform salaries that any higher-paid teachers would have their salaries cut, which means the lower-paid teachers would receive raises.

Those and other issues are sure to be part of the focus this afternoon in testimony on the bill. You can listen in starting around 1 p.m. by clicking here. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin ‘doing everything he can’ to get back to Washington for Thursday’s health care vote. A family health emergency pulled the Republican from Maine’s 2nd District back home on Wednesday. The same day, his party’s leaders announced that the House of Representatives will vote on their replacement for the Affordable Care Act today. Poliquin hasn’t given a position it, but spokesman Brendan Conley said Wednesday night that his boss is “doing everything he can to get back to Washington tomorrow.” — Michael Shepherd
  • This year’s legislative push to change Maine solar policy begins today. Environmentalists will rally outside the office building next to the State House ahead of a 1 p.m. public hearing on a bill from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, that would enshrine “net metering” — a policy allowing homeowners with solar panels to get credits for power given to the grid — in Maine law. The Maine Public Utilities Commission scaled back the policy in January. The Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club are behind the bill. — Michael Shepherd
  • A rural mail carrier from Dexter is the first Democrat to declare a run against Poliquin in 2018. Phil Cleaves told the Sun Journal reported Wednesday he was tired of “the crap and corruption going on” and decided to mount a longshot bid against the congressman. Democrats haven’t been clamoring to run against Poliquin next year after his 2016 re-election, but two-time Maine Senate candidate Jonathan Fulford of Monroe said in March that he may run. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

It’s “Welcome Back Day” for the Legislature, which means there will likely be a number of House and Senate alumni around for some pomp and circumstance. But there is also a load of work to do and the potential for several debates, according to the House and Senate calendars.

The House will vote on a veto of LD 444, which would allow disabled veterans a higher gross vehicle weight on Maine roads. The Senate voted 34-0 to override the veto on Tuesday. Among the bills that could come up for votes today is one that would prohibit the creation of a firearms owner registry in Maine. It comes from the Criminal Justice Committee with a 8-4 endorsement but it likely to have a rough time in the Democratic-controlled House. Another gun rights bill, which would allow towns and cities to ban weapons at public proceedings and the polls, is also on the docket.

Also up for consideration in the House is a bill that would make exposing a law enforcement officer to a disorienting substance, such as pepper spray, a crime.

There are a handful of bills up for votes that would change hunting laws, including some that would allow Sunday hunting under certain circumstances, but bills like those come up just about every legislative session and don’t go anywhere. Another bill on the calendar would make changes to term lengths for legislators while maintaining the current 8-year cap.  

The Senate will likely vote on two gubernatorial vetoes that were overturned on Tuesday in the House. LD 21 involves temporary powers of attorney for children and the other, LD 432, would designate this coming Saturday as Maine Community Litter Cleanup Day.

Legislative committees are voting out recommendations on bills at a frantic pace these days. The Health and Human Services Committee, for example, appears set to make recommendations on a number of proposals for changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Check out those bills as well as all the rest on today’s docket by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins

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Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.