Question 2 on the Nov. 8 state ballot asks voters if they favor establishing a Fund to Advance Public Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education. If Question 2 is approved, revenue for the fund would be generated by a 3 percent surcharge on Maine taxable incomes over $200,000, beginning with the Jan. 1, 2017-taxyear. Proponents of Question 2 say the idea is to help the state reach its annual, statutory aid target of 55 percent of the cost of public education statewide. The fund would support student learning, not administration. The proponents have a point: state support of public schools is slipping. In the 2008-09 school year, the legislature just about met its 55 percent obligation (it managed $983 million — 54 percent of actual costs). But last year, the legislature allocated only 47 percent of public education costs. The balance was made up by property taxpayers.
All the while, the federal government and Maine legislature have passed along to school systems pricey initiatives — Common Core, proficiency-based education, a new teacher evaluation system — with no funding for implementation.
Proponents say a surcharge on incomes over $200,000 will generate an extra $157 million for public schools statewide, closing the gap to reach the elusive 55 percent. Bonus: If the state share increases, the property taxpayers’ share will go down. The funding issue is real and painfully familiar to Hancock County residents. But is the Question 2 solution real?
If our lawmakers have a statutory obligation to allocate funds equal to 55 percent of schooling costs, why let them off the hook? They can’t. They won’t. They haven’t. What is this? Question 2 enables — in the negative sense of the word — an ineffective legislature to remain so. According to the Maine School Management Association, which is made up of school boards and school superintendents, reliance on an income tax to fund a basic service such as education is a dicey business. The Fund to Advance Public Education would be vulnerable to the ups and downs of the investments from which many high-rolling Maine residents derive their wealth. Another recession could dry up the money stream to the fund.
The School Management Association also asks what is to keep a future legislature from reducing general purpose aid to education by the amount raised through the 3 percent surcharge on the well-off?
And the question remains: Will the state’s minimum receiver towns — those with high property values — be any better off if Question 2 passes? We don’t think so.
There’s an undeniable appeal in the Robin Hood assumption that underlies Question 2. “Hey, those fat cats won’t even miss it.” But simple solutions often have unanticipated consequences. What message does Question 2 send to businesses, retirees, the current and future “cottage” owners on Mount Desert Island? Will the well-heeled be as inclined to support Maine nonprofits when they realize that they are targeted by a tax the rest of us don’t have to pay?
But beyond and before all that is the ballot question’s assumption that the Maine legislature will never get its act together to fully fund the state’s obligation to its schools. We expect more from our lawmakers than that. An income tax surcharge is a poor substitute for substantive action by an informed and committed legislature, which is why we recommend voting no on Question 2.