I have just gone through my first budget process as a public servant, and have an even greater appreciation of the difficulties inherent in trying to find a balance between what we want, what we’d like and what we need. This is even harder when money is tight.
As many in Bangor know, there is real pressure on local budgets. While there has been a focus at the federal and state level to have no tax increases, in many cases this results in local governments having to pick up the slack. There are many programs that have to be funded if we are to uphold our obligations to our citizens and our community.
All of this leads me to wonder yet again why Bangor and other communities in Maine have to pinch so much out of our budgets and have small tax increases in order to fund education at levels below previous years when the state has yet to fulfill its obligation under the law.
By my count, since November 2001 the people of Maine have voted directly on 32 bonds, four constitutional amendments, four people’s vetoes, one referendum and 13 citizen’s initiatives with one carry-over election. The carry-over was a confirmation vote for one of the citizen’s initiatives that passed overwhelmingly: that the state of Maine “pay 55 percent of the cost of public education, which includes all special education costs, for the purpose of shifting costs from the property tax to state resources.” Maine voters passed this initiative in November 2003 and the carry-over measure in June 2004. And, while the state did increase its share of public education costs for a few years, it has never come close to the required 55 percent. Not only that, the state share has since gone down and continues to decrease.
Why is this so? Keeping education funding at 55 percent is certainly not an easy thing to do, and I don’t believe the voters thought it would be. However, all we have heard from successive legislators, cabinet heads and governors is that the required 55 percent funding is not going to happen. The consistent message has been that reaching 55 percent of education funding is too hard to do, so we’re going to move on to other issues.
Instead, there is talk about tax cuts and the best way to go about them. We have large policy discussions and bills passed regarding business incentives and Pine Tree Zones. But we cannot discuss the fact that the state of Maine, as directed by its citizens, will not live up to its obligations.
We cannot talk about how we are damaging our own economic development as a state by short changing education. We cannot talk about how we’ll continue to lag behind others if we don’t pay it forward now. There have been many studies identifying the role that education plays in advancing both personal earnings and the economic development of a community. If we continue what we’ve been doing, at the end of the day we will only be able to guarantee that our state will not have all the tools needed to prosper.
I don’t let my children or the kids that I coach say that they can’t do something because it is too hard. I also don’t let them say that they can’t try for the same reasons. America is known throughout the world as a place where a “can do!” attitude works wonders.
For most things, Maine is one of the best embodiments of that attitude. I’d like to see some of it from our current legislators and governor now, and have them fully fund public education, for both economic and community reasons.
It is time to get education funding up to 55 percent, within the next five years. While this will require an increase in taxes at the state level, it can be done in ways to spread out the cost (perhaps a 1 percent increase on the sales tax, or a similar increase in the hotel tax) to the whole state, instead of communities having to increase their property taxes year after year. Most important, it will begin to ensure the future we all want: a prosperous Maine.
Kate Dickerson is a member of the Bangor School Committee and works on energy and environmental policy issues for Maine at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.