March 19, 2019
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Lawmakers need a viable way to complete the job voters gave them

Tomi Henderson | Star-Herald
Tomi Henderson | Star-Herald
Debate over school funding has slowed budget negotiations in Augusta.

As lawmakers near a deadline to reach agreement on a state budget for the next two years, education spending remains a major hurdle.

In a nutshell, Democrats want to maintain a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 in order to increase education funding by more than $300 million. This measure was approved by Maine voters in November and the state is already collecting revenue through the surcharge, though such revenue collections are lower than expected.

Senate Republicans are adamant about repealing the surtax and have offered $110 million in additional education funding, though they are vague about the source of this money. House Republicans also want to repeal the surtax but would direct no additional money to K-12 education spending, despite November’s referendum vote and a 2004 vote by Maine people to require the state to contribute 55 percent of public education costs.

All three proposals are currently before lawmakers, who are facing a July 1 deadline to have a new biennial budget in place.

Their work will be made easier if they maintain focus on the job voters gave them — to increase state education spending.

By this measure, the House Republican plan is irrelevant. It is essentially a rehash of proposals from Gov. Paul LePage that have already been largely rejected.

The Senate Republican plan falls woefully short of what voters have twice demanded in order to give a tax cut to the state’s wealthiest residents.

Lawmakers have long said they’d like the state to get to the 55 percent funding level, but they just couldn’t find a revenue source. Voters essentially called their bluff. Frustrated that the state had not reached the 55 percent level, voters approved a funding source — the surtax — to get there.

If Republicans want to reject that funding source, which does make Maine’s top income tax rate among the highest in the country, they must come up with a viable alternative — without cutting state spending on social programs, and without using accounting gimmicks.

When it comes to calculating 55 percent of education costs, Republicans want to include additional teacher retirement payments in the state’s share. These payments, which must be made now to make up for payments the state didn’t make in the 1980s and 1990s, were always meant to be made entirely by the state and separately from of the state’s school funding formula. Adding them to the formula would increase the total bill for the state’s schools, to be borne by the state and local property taxpayers. This would result in local property taxpayers paying more, with none of the money going to classrooms or other current school functions.

This change would wipe out the benefits of much of the $110 million Senate Republicans said they will allocate to K-12 education, making this plan woefully inadequate.

Time is short, but compromise is surely possible. It is also necessary. LePage has already said he’ll veto a budget that doesn’t include changes he wants. That means that two-thirds of the Legislature must agree on a budget so lawmakers can override a veto — as they have done with the past two biennial state budgets. This will require lawmakers to move beyond ideology toward what is best for Maine’s students and taxpayers — all of them.



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