Question 2: Funding Maine's public schools

Question 2: New tax to fund Maine's schools?

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Question 2 on the November ballot asks Maine voters if they support adding a 3 percent tax on individual Maine taxable income above $200,000 to create a state fund that would provide direct support for student learning in kindergarten through 12th-grade public education.

Both sides agree that public schools need better funding, but they disagree on how to do so.

Question 2 says the tax revenue would be used for "direct support" for student learning, which includes salaries and benefits for teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, and a number of other positions, but not administrative costs.

Opponents say the funds would only be used for those salaries.

"The only uses listed were salaries and personnel costs. Why would you single out one area and not list other possibilities?" said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and spokesperson for the No on 2 campaign.

Yes on 2 campaign spokesperson John Kosinski said the funds are not exclusively for salaries and could be used for textbooks or technology.

"The language says 'can include' things like hiring more teachers, social workers, guidance counselors. It doesn't say 'only include,'" he said.

School districts would have to file reports each year to show how the money was spent. Opponents argue that creating a special fund for education simply is not possible under the Maine constitution.

"There is no room for a special fund unless, like the highway fund, it's in the constitution and specifically identified," Connors said. "All other funds, you call it what you want, you can label it what you want, it's going to go to the general fund."

Kosinski disagreed.

"It's clear as day. It creates a separate, segregated account just to help support our schools all over the state," he said. "It does not go into the general fund as some have alluded."

A paper prepared by the Maine School Management Association draws on information prepared by the Secretary of State, which says the Legislature could use the income tax surcharge to reduce the state’s General Purpose Aid appropriation.

The prohibition against tying the hands of future legislators when it comes to appropriating funds is part of the Maine constitution.

Find the entire paper here.

Schools would get money based on the state's school funding formula. It factors in population, property values and percentage of low-income students. In 2013, the Legislature spent $450,000 on an analysis of that formula.

"The formula itself needs to be improved," Connors said. "Even they, when they did the report, said 'it isn't perfect, it's a good start, it's a good foundation, but you need to make some adjustments to the formula.'"

"These national experts have told us our school-funding formula is among the most equitable in the country, but what they also told us is that we are woefully underfunding our public schools and that needs to be fixed," Kosinski said. "What we need to do is provide more resources to all schools, and then have that conversation about, 'Are there ways we can make that better?'"

Even if the tax revenue could be kept separate from the general fund, opponents argue the money would be unevenly distributed.

"Twelve percent of the communities are getting 60 percent of the dollars that are going to derive from this, and a lot of them are located right in the greater Portland area," Connors said.

"What they have been saying for a long time is that 85 communities will receive no funding if this passes. What they don't tell you is that half of those communities don't even have schools," Kosinski said.

In 2004, Maine voters approved a referendum calling on the state to fund 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education. But the state has never been able to do so.

"The initial referendum hasn't been successful because it wasn't funded. It told the legislature 'do this,' but it didn't tell them how to do it," Kosinski said. "Question 2 is the agreement about how to do it. Let's better fund our schools by asking the wealthiest Mainers to pay a little bit more."

"Any economist will tell you that is faulty tax reform when you single out a group of people to actually provide dollars for a wide benefit of use such as education," Connors said. "This solution is the wrong answer to a pressing issue that education faces today."

Connors said the tax rate for those who make more than $200,000 of 10.15 percent would be the second-highest in the country behind California, and would dissuade new people and businesses from moving to Maine. He added that it would unfairly tax small businesses.

Kosinski said that according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, only 4 percent of Maine's small businesses make more than $200,000 a year.

Find the full language of the ballot question here.

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