Maine voters to decide tax on wealthy to support schools

Posted 11:00 a.m. Sunday

— A question on the November ballot will ask voters to approve a 3 percent tax on the well-off to support a public education fund for Maine teachers and students.

Supporters of the proposal say it would raise more than $150 million for the state's schools. They say it ensures that Maine will fund 55 percent of the K-12 education costs as required by a 2004 voter referendum that passed but the state never fulfilled.

"I think voters are frustrated that politicians in Augusta have not prioritized funding our schools and at the same time, have given large tax breaks to the wealthiest Mainers," said John Kosinski, a Maine Education Association spokesman and Question 2 campaign manager.

Critics of the plan to tax those making more than $200,000 say it may be well-intentioned but is flawed. Former Maine Education Commissioner Jim Rier and others argue the tax may actually exacerbate inequities between rich and poor communities.

"Even more will be going to (richer communities) and not nearly as much will flow to units with high economically disadvantaged percentages of students and poorer communities," said Rier, treasurer of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce campaign against Question 2.

The campaign's most noted critics include a strange pair of bedfellows: Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his Democratic predecessor, John Baldacci. Both say the added tax would make Maine's income tax the second highest in the country after California and, consequently, would repel businesses and professionals like doctors and lawyers from Maine.

"Why would I go to Maine for the privilege of paying a higher income tax when I could go to New Hampshire, where there is no income tax," LePage said in a recent talk radio interview.

Kosinski said there's no research to support critics' predictions. He cited a 2013 taxpayer-funded report that found Maine's school-funding formula equitable but recommended increasing education spending by $260 million and easing poor families' property taxes.

Over 60 percent of respondents to a survey last month by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center for the Portland Press Herald said they supported Question 2.

Public schools in Maine's biggest city, Portland, could receive $10.8 million, according to the campaign. The local school board endorsed Question 2 last fall, and Superintendent Xavier Botana said additional funding could mean local property tax relief and more school programs.

But Jim Chasse, superintendent of Greenville Consolidated School, said Question 2 wouldn't help his rural district of 219 students. His is one of 85 tiny school districts not expected to receive additional funding.

"This area generates a great amount of wealth for state coffers but yet receives nothing back, or very little back," said Chasse, whose community is home to the tourist destination Moosehead Lake.

Chasse said his district's $3.6 million budget includes about $100,000 in state aid. He supports changing the formula to help low-income, high-property value districts like his.

Bill Webster, superintendent of Lewiston public schools, which could receive $3 million, said he's unsure the proposal is the right way to help underfunded schools and Maine's economy.

Webster said that as November nears, more superintendents who backed Question 2 are raising questions. He said the ballot measure wording is "unclear" and could lead to problems if approved.

"It's tough to take a complex issue like this and administer it effectively in a referendum process," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I need more money."

The Maine School Management Association, a federation of local school boards and superintendents, isn't taking a position for or against Question 2, but has cited benefits while expressing concerns that relying on income tax revenue could mean instability during an economic downtown.

And while Kosinski says Question 2 would immediately become law, the association said it anticipates legislation will have to clarify some issues.


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