In a few days, we will be going to the polls to decide some very important issues for Maine's future. As is usually the case, the advocates and opponents for most of these issues have been threatening to drown us in facts, opinions and arguments. I feel compelled to add one more perspective. I am concerned about the confusion surrounding Question One. School funding and property taxes are two crucial issues for all of us. Question One touches both and deserves a close look.
1A started the ball rolling by calling upon the state legislature to immediately fund 55% of the cost of local education and 100% of special education costs. Sadly lacking is any plan to come up with the approximately $250 million needed to pay for the proposal. If 1A wins the day, then the legislature will be left with the task of finding the additional revenue. If that happens, look for an abundance of plans to raid your wallet through increased taxation.
1B is the attempt by the governor, with the legislature's approval, to give voters a second option. A competing measure, we call it. The only real difference is in the timing. 1B will phase in the increase in state spending over the next few years instead of being done all at once, as 1A requires. There is a small amount of property tax relief for a few in 1B but it won't amount to much in the way of real tax reform. 1B does identify what is called essential programs and services in regard to K-12 education to base the 55% payment on. This is an improvement but could be better used with real tax reform. While 1B is better than 1A, it is a little like having to choose between a quick beating and a slow beating. Either way, the bruises are sure to show. 1B assumes that the increase can be paid for with the normal growth in state revenues and disciplined budgeting by the state. I must tell you, in my five years in the state senate, I have yet to see any discipline when it comes to spending your money.
There are a couple of details you may not hear from the advocates for either 1A or 1B. Missing in the promises of lowering property taxes is any promise to do exactly that. That's right, there is nothing in the proposed law to require the average Mainer's property taxes to drop as much as the price of a newspaper. It is hoped by the proponents that it will happen, but then if just wishing for it would do the trick, property taxes would already be reasonable. Another bit of information you might have missed is that 55% of education funding does not mean every district would have 55% of their school costs paid for. In fact, some districts could actually end up with less than they are currently receiving. The 55% refers only to the statewide cost, not the cost in each local district.
The problem with Question 1 is that it does not deal with the problem of badly needed tax reform. While I find it hard to find fault with those who forced the question onto the ballot, I feel strongly that passage of this issue with either 1A or 1B will result in higher taxes. If there is one lesson to be learned from this question it is that people want tax reform. But true tax reform has to be more than shifting taxes around. By now it is probably obvious that I am going to take the third option, which is a vote for 1C. I believe that 1A and 1B are poorly constructed and will prove to be little more than a temporary distraction from the real issue of tax reform. I would much rather see the energy behind this be used to pressure the legislature into meaningful tax reform and relief. That is not as far-fetched as it sounds. During the last session, Senator Richard Nass introduced just such a proposal. It was defeated by one vote, 18-17. I have introduced a tax reform measure for the upcoming session. It calls for sensible tax reform, including making it harder to raise taxes and puts controls on the growth of spending. My vote for 1C is not a vote to do nothing. It is in fact an attempt to avoid injecting more confusion into Maine's tax policy. Perhaps the attention attracted by question one will persuade the opponents of tax reform to do the right thing.
Senate District 8