LePage’s push for a statewide teacher contract fails its first test

After voicing tepid openness to negotiating Gov. Paul LePage’s call for a statewide teacher contract, Democrats have drawn a line in the sand that could doom the proposal.

Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee on Tuesday rejected the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta. The committee votes are still coming in but according to Pouliot, the vote will end up along party lines.

The bill would have created a statewide collective bargaining unit for teachers, starting with a pilot program, as of January 2021. That means all teachers in Maine would be put on the same pay scale — including a common minimum annual salary — though Pouliot’s bill would allow local school districts to maintain control of hiring and, if they want, increasing salaries above the provisions of the statewide contract.

This concept is a priority for LePage, who has also included similar language in his biennial budget proposal. LePage favors higher pay for teachers in general, and he and supporters view this proposal as a way to equalize opportunities for students, whether they live in affluent or not-so-affluent communities. The bill would cost extra money to equalize pay across Maine, but could also save the state some money by consolidating teacher health insurance costs in one contract. However, the idea may be a non-starter following Tuesday’s vote.

Pouliot said this morning he was disappointed with the partisan vote.

“When presented with an opportunity to bring true equity to teacher salary and benefits in rural and economically disadvantaged districts to help recruit and retain excellent teachers, the Democratic members of the committee, after being relentlessly pressured by the teacher union lobby who felt they would lose control in the process, chose to support the status quo,” wrote Pouliot in a statement to the BDN.

The Maine Education Association voiced strong opposition to the bill in committee testimony, arguing that the proposal is incomplete because, among other things, it doesn’t provide any funding, doesn’t guarantee increased salaries for teachers and would erode local control.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, the lead Senate Democrat on the Education Committee, said in a written statement this morning that the bill “just wasn’t ready for prime time.”

“There were too many unanswered questions,” said Millett. “We never got clarity about who in each school district got to decide whether to participate in the pilot. We were never given a clear explanation about how this bill would affect school funding through EPS and GPA [the school funding formula]. Moreover, the entire premise of a statewide teacher contract is to level the playing field across communities, but this bill would have allowed districts to raise salaries above the state-negotiated level. So even if this were a good idea — and I’m not convinced it is — this particular bill undermined the entire goal of the proposal.”

Another bill proposing a statewide teacher contract, LD 1555, which approached it as optional for local school districts, was unanimously rejected by the Education Committee on Tuesday.

This fight isn’t over. Expect a full-throated lambasting of Democrats by LePage and an intense debate when Pouliot’s bill hits the House and Senate. The stakes are high on this one because some have suspected that this proposal will be integral in end-of-session negotiations around education funding. Republicans are intent on repealing the 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000, which was passed by voters in November 2016 to benefit public schools, and possibly supporting a straight General Fund appropriation to increase overall school funding.

Some have said that appropriation would support increased costs associated with the statewide contract — supporting LePage’s demand that education funding go directly to students and not administration — but that idea is scuttled if Pouliot’s and LePage’s proposals are dead.

Hot take: This means the end of the legislative session just became a whole lot harder. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • The Maine Ethics Commission today will consider penalizing a group run by a conservative lawmaker that issued controversial mailers in the 2016 campaign. The Maine Democratic Party has asked the ethics watchdog to investigate the New England Opportunity Project, a group run by Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, for not identifying the group’s top three donors in an October 2016 mailer critical of then-House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. Lockman’s group paid a late-filing penalty in December, but the commission didn’t handle the disclosure issue and staff are recommending that they find the group in violation again. That’s the top agenda item at the commission’s meeting in Augusta today. — Michael Shepherd
  • Thanks, LePage — sincerely, newspapers. The House of Representatives upheld three LePage vetoes on Tuesday, including one highlighted yesterday in the Daily Brief that will keep in place an archaic mandate forcing city clerks to publish a specimen ballot in a newspaper before a local election, even though LePage hammered newspapers in his veto letter. Also upheld in mostly partisan votes were vetoes of bills aimed at helping coastal communities prepare for rising sea levels and safely disposing of expired marine flares. Here’s a soundtrack for the latter.— Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are operating at full speed, which doesn’t mean speedy. It just means they are running through bills as quickly as they can. Here’s their soundtrack. With committees near the end of their work, new bills are still being filed by Gov. Paul LePage.

In today’s House calendar is notice of a new bill from the governor headed to the Health and Human Services Committee — LD 1620, An Act to Reform Welfare for Increased Security and Employment.

It appears to be a backstop for many of the social services initiatives in LePage’s original biennial budget proposal for the likely event that they are amended out of the bill. There are also some new initiatives that the governor has mentioned previously, such as restricting convicted felons and some lottery winners from receiving food stamps and TANF benefits.

The House will also consider a bill that would prohibit someone under 18 years old from being charged with engaging in prostitution, a bill to direct food aid to areas of high unemployment, a $500,000 bill to help homeowners treat contaminated drinking water in their wells, a bill to eliminate income taxes on state employee pensions, a bill to increase penalties for sex trafficking, and a bill to pull county jails further into addressing drug addiction.

In the Senate there is a similarly stacked calendar for the day. The body will consider overriding a gubernatorial veto of LD 877, which among other things would allow driver education course operators to issue learner’s permits. That veto was overridden 138-8 in the House on Tuesday.

The Senate will likely refer a new bill, LD 1619, which has to do with adding methadone to the Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program, to the Health and Human Services Committee.

Also up for consideration today are a bill to waive property taxes for certain disabled senior citizens, a bill to put new requirements on commercial drivers regarding the reporting of human trafficking, a bill that passed in the House Tuesday which would require insurance coverage for contraceptives, a bill to relieve student debt for Maine teachers, and many others.

Check out this afternoon’s committee schedule, which will likely be delayed because of all the work on the docket for the full Legislature, by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Best of Maine’s Craigslist

  • This ‘marijuana caterer’ is selling expensive plastic baggies. Because Maine law currently bans marijuana sales but allows donations, someone from the Waterville area says they’ll “cater just about anything and everything” with specific rates. But they say “I AM IN NO WAY TAKING MONEY FOR MARIJUANA” and “YOU WILL NOT FIND QUALITY LIKE MINE ANYWHERE IN THE STATE I DONT CARE HOW GOOD YOU THINK YOUR IS MINES BETTER.”
  • ‘Powerful rock vocals’ needed? A singer in Warren is looking for a band, boasting of “some powerful rock vocals” and saying “hmu if interested.” As powerful as Sebastian Bach? Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

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.