September 16, 2019
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Committee strikes LePage budget proposal to have school districts pick up teacher retirement costs

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative panel Monday opposed a portion of Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget proposal that would charge local school districts with paying half of teacher retirement costs.

The provision in the governor’s $6.3 billion two-year budget proposal would provide school districts with about $29.4 million in additional funds over the next two years to pay for the retirement cost shift. School districts would receive the money through the state’s school funding formula — which awards education aid based on factors including property values and the number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches — so wealthier districts would end up shouldering a higher percentage of retirement costs than others.

The Legislature’s Education Committee voted 9-4 Monday against the budget provision. The vote becomes part of the committee’s budget recommendations that next go to the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

The state currently picks up 100 percent of teacher retirement costs. The LePage administration pitched the retirement proposal as a more equitable way to split retirement costs between the state and teachers’ employers and assign costs based on ability to pay. Democratic leaders in the Legislature have portrayed the retirement cost shift as one of a number of provisions in LePage’s budget that transfer additional costs to local property taxpayers.

“I think this is the worst possible time to begin that shift in responsibility,” said Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, an Education Committee member.

As they debated the proposal Monday, Education Committee members discussed the possibility of ultimately shifting school employees to Social Security and away from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. One advantage, said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, is that it would make it easier for younger school employees to switch careers without worrying about losing retirement benefits.

“I think this is the catalyst we might need at this time to get there,” Langley said of LePage’s budget proposal.

Committee members ultimately decided against making the switch as part of the state budget, and Langley said legislation to make that change is forthcoming next year.

The Education Committee on Monday also opposed another portion of LePage’s budget that would set up a “Choice and Opportunity Fund” to create a voucher system for underprivileged students and families that would allow them to use taxpayer dollars to transfer to other public or private schools. The budget would set aside $530,000 for the fund.

The committee opposed the proposal in a 9-2 vote.

The Education Committee and other legislative committees have already rejected a number of major proposals in LePage’s budget as they prepare their recommendations for lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee, who are expected to work out a final budget package.

Education Committee members earlier this month rejected a $1 million provision that would have taken money from general purpose aid for education to create a legal defense fund for the state Board of Education, the Department of Education and the Maine Charter School Commission.

The Judiciary Committee opposed a similar proposal that would reserve $300,000 for legal defense of the governor’s office.

And members of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee rejected budget proposals to eliminate revenue sharing with towns and cities for two years and scale back property tax relief programs.

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