AUGUSTA, Maine — 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 voted as a partisan bloc against the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta. Straggling committee votes were still being submitted on Wednesday morning, but according to Pouliot the vote will end up along party lines, meaning the committee will send the proposal with an “ought not to pass” recommendation to the full Legislature.

The bill would have created a statewide collective bargaining unit for teachers, starting with a pilot program that would allow school districts to opt in. 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 Wednesday morning he’s disappointed by 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,” Pouliot wrote in a statement to the BDN.

The Maine Education Association, which represents public school teachers, voiced strong opposition to the bill in committee testimony, arguing 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 Wednesday morning that the bill “just wasn’t ready for prime time.”

“There were too many unanswered questions,” Millett said. “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, 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 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.

This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.

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.