Imagine out there somewhere is a homeowner, who tells his bank that he’s no longer going to pay the full $1,500 payment on his mortgage every month. He’s going to underpay by $275 monthly — the amount it costs to heat his home — and ask the bank to credit him for paying his fuel company.
“Paying for heat is part of the cost of living in a home,” he says. “Why shouldn’t you give me credit for paying my fuel company?”
Would the bank agree? Obviously not. They’d hold him accountable for failure to pay his mortgage, and they may even foreclose on his home.
This scheme seems far-fetched. But it’s exactly the gimmick Republicans in the Legislature are trying to pull on Maine’s public schools. And they should be held every bit as accountable as that homeowner would be.
The state is obligated to cover its share of the cost of K-12 public education. But funding for local schools isn’t the state’s only bill related to education. The state budget also appropriates money to the Maine Department of Education, for example, as well as the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System. And, every two years, it pays down a debt associated with public employee retirement costs, known in education policy circles as the “unfunded actuarial liability.” These bills are paid, separate and apart from the state’s subsidy to local schools.
It’s been 13 years since voters approved a law requiring the state to fully fund its fair share of local education costs, calculated as 55 percent of the cost of essential programs and services. They passed that law in an effort to get out from under rising property tax rates, and out of recognition that a solid education for all students benefits our entire state. But the state has never hit the 55 percent threshold, and property taxpayers have been left to pay the difference.
So voters approved Question 2 at the ballot box in November, which re-affirmed their demand that the state fully fund education, and provided a revenue stream to do it in the form of a 3 percent surcharge on taxable income higher than $200,000. The surcharge is set to provide an additional $320 million for public schools over the next two years.
Here’s where our homeowner comes in: Republicans in the Legislature say they want to repeal the surcharge. But they have no plan to replace the funding approved by voters for Maine schools. Instead, they want to cut funding for Maine’s schools by $210 million and mask it by including the unfunded actuarial liability payments in the calculation of the state’s share of education costs. This move artificially inflates the state’s subsidy for schools, making it look like an increase in funding when in reality not one additional cent goes to the classroom.
This is cynical politics at its worst. Instead of funding our schools, Republicans are devising gimmicks and accounting maneuvers to paper over their refusal to honor the will of the voters. We can read the plain language that was approved by voters in November. They were asked whether to support a new fund dedicated to “increasing direct support for student learning rather than administrative costs.”
This accounting gimmick directly contradicts the voters’ will. Furthermore, it will increase property taxes by roughly $77 million throughout the state by making local communities pick up 45 percent of the cost of unfunded actuarial liability — a cost previously borne entirely by the state.
This reckless plan is the polar opposite of what the people of Maine demanded at the ballot box in November. It ignores the will of the voters. It takes money out of the classroom. It raises property taxes.
And just like the homeowner’s proposition in our analogy, it should be recognized for the disingenuous and self-serving idea that it is. The budget needs to truly fund our schools and cut property taxes — just like voters demanded.
Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth is the lead Senate Democrat on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Rep. Roger Fuller, D-Lewiston, also serves on the committee.