This fall, voters will have a chance to weigh in on a referendum that is intended to fix another referendum. Years ago — in 2004, to be precise — voters passed a measure requiring the state, rather than local school districts, to fund 55 percent of the costs of education. Proponents (mainly the teachers’ unions) argued that such a mandate would even out education funding throughout the state and reduce the burden on local school districts. This seemed like a reasonable argument — at least, it did to the voters of Maine — and the referendum passed fairly easily.
The problem? The Legislature promptly began to ignore it.
You see, voters might be able to pass a referendum or a citizens initiative, but at the end of the day the Legislature writes the budget. The budget — whether it’s the regular kind that occurs biennially, or the supplemental kind that needs to be passed to fix a shortfall — is a law unto itself.
In this case, the Legislature rapidly found that it didn’t like the idea of having its budget-writing hands tied by a referendum. After all, in order to hit that 55 percent target, Augusta would need to make decisions: either reduce the spending elsewhere or raise taxes to bring in more revenue. In order to avoid making a decision, legislators instead routinely slip a proviso into each budget that exempts that budget from the funding requirement. Over the past decade-plus this 55 percent number has become a promise that, come election time, candidates from both parties cling to like a life raft, making vague promises to meet that target, without cutting other spending or raising taxes, of course.
Education advocates have, understandably, tired of this routine. So, this year, they’re sponsoring a referendum that creates a 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000, with that revenue going to a special fund set up to bridge the gap between the real level of education funding and that 55 percent target. They’ve even written in a requirement that any laws that try to change how that money is spent are subject to a 30-day review, to prevent any dead-of-night budget deals from raiding the fund.
There are a number of fundamental flaws with this proposal — beginning with the operating assumption that the biggest shortcoming facing Maine schools is a lack of funding. Maine schools — just like schools all over this country — need real reforms, not just more money. If the advocates of this referendum wanted to improve education in Maine, they’d be proposing substantive reforms, rather than just pushing for more funding.
Furthermore, this legislation complicates tax laws by essentially creating another tax bracket. This flies in the face of recent tax reform efforts supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, which have attempted to reduce the state’s dependence on income tax revenue. It then compounds that mistake by dedicating that revenue to a certain purpose — setting a terrible precedent that other special interest groups could choose to follow in the future.
However, the biggest problem with this referendum is that it doesn’t even solve the problem it purports to address. Essentially, this legislation creates a bailout fund for future legislators, discouraging them from ever hitting that 55 percent target. Rather than leading to increasing education spending, this referendum is far more likely to increase creative budgeting in Augusta.
If you want to improve education in Maine, don’t vote for a gimmicky referendum that throws more money at the problem. Instead, demand that legislators come together to pass real, bipartisan education reform that Mainers deserve. That won’t be easy for anyone, but it might have a chance at creating permanent improvements, instead of creating new problems that need to be fixed with yet another referendum.