A public education advocacy coalition has launched a citizen referendum petition to generate $110 million for schools by levying a 3-percent surcharge on the top 2 percent of income earners. The group Stand Up for Students says the new tax would translate to about $30 for every $1,000 earned over $200,000. The revenue would be used to directly fund classroom instruction, teachers, school nurses and other public school personnel. According to the initiative’s organizers, Regional School Unit 13 in the Rockland area would receive an extra $1.5 million if the referendum passes. The petition will need approximately 62,000 signatures in order to appear on the 2016 ballot. 

The “tax the 2 percent” school funding initiative would move the state toward its voter-mandated requirement of covering 55 percent of the cost of education. The 55-percent mandate was passed in 2003, but the state has never fulfilled its obligation. 

During the past six years, the state has cut funding for education and revenue sharing to towns in order to balance its own budget and pay for nearly $400 million in income tax cuts. As a result, many schools have cut programs and towns have been forced to make the choice between raising property taxes or cutting services. 

Between 2008 and 2014, Maine’s per-pupil spending adjusted for inflation was reduced by 13.3 percent, which is the ninth highest drop in education spending in the country according to the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Last spring, the Legislature appropriated an additional $80 million in its two-year budget for education, but the state is still funding education at below 45 percent, according to the Maine Municipal Association. 

However, the current formula considers property values as a proxy for a town’s ability to pay for schools and doesn’t factor in median household incomes. As a result, the state only covers about 15 percent of essential instruction costs for RSU 13 due to the region’s valuable coastal property. In spite of the lack of equity in the EPS formula, Rockland City Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf says the extra $1.5 million for the district would make a big difference. 

“I support this initiative as our state has let down our 

students and communities by not funding them as promised,” she wrote in an email. “This broken promise has 

also eaten away at our City’s coffers. This broken promise forced Rockland and other municipalities to make drastic cuts to budgets in order to keep taxes in check and services available.”

RSU 13 School Board Chair Steve Roberts says he supports the intent of the proposal but is skeptical of the plan because the state has routinely ignored the will of the voters to fund education at 55 percent and never suffered any penalties. He said that it may require a constitutional amendment to force the state to meet its obligations. 

LePage: The 55 percent law “will never happen”

Meanwhile, a Republican Party-backed referendum to abolish the state income tax could add even more complications if it qualifies for the 2016 ballot. The measure, which is supported by Gov. LePage, would eliminate $1.7 billion in revenue, or a third of total state revenues. The governor has said that the budget hole could partially be offset by cutting $250 million in “waste” from the education budget by forcing more rural schools to consolidate and putting more classes online.

At a town hall forum in Lewiston on October 13, the governor dismissed any notion that the state would ever honor its obligations to meet the 55-percent threshold: 

“It will never happen in the state of Maine because it’s not possible. Every single year the person who has to pay the 55 percent has nothing to say about what makes up 55 percent.”

The governor went on to argue that the state shouldn’t have to fund local schools because it doesn’t have any say in how many teachers a district hires and what their salaries are. LePage’s comments on the 55-percent law are a complete 180 from the position he took while running for governor as the mayor of Waterville.

“The citizens of Maine voted for the state to fund 55 percent of GPA funding,” he told the Portland Press Herald in October 2010. “Therefore, the state has the responsibility to abide by the will of the people. To meet that responsibility the state needs to reprioritize spending and shrink the size and scope of state government.”

At the Lewiston forum last week,  the governor went even further, arguing that the state is not even constitutionally obligated to provide any funding for education at all. He cited Article VIII of the Maine Constitution, which begins: “Legislature shall require towns to support public schools; duty of Legislature.” 

“Do you know that it’s unconstitutional in the state of Maine for the state to pay one dollar towards education?” the governor asked the Lewiston audience. “But we’ve never changed the constitution. We’ve been doing it for decades, but it’s [clear] the constitution says the state will only ensure that local communities pay for educating their students at their costs. And I’m meeting with the Chief Justice on Friday to ask why does this continue to happen? And they say, ‘Well, we take the precedent and you’ve been doing it, so we would say you’ve got to continue doing it.’ So if that’s the case, then why are we asking a governor to take an oath to the United States Constitution and an oath to the Maine Constitution when the Constitution doesn’t mean what the Constitution says. It only means what the court says it says when they decide to discuss it in the courts. But that’s a fact.”

Education Committee member Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) called the governor’s argument “absurd.” 

“The Governor misunderstands that the law requires the state to pay 55% of [“Essential Programs and Services”], which is the state’s calculation of the threshold cost necessary to provide each Maine student with the opportunity to meet Maine’s Learning Results, not 55% of whatever schools choose to spend.”

When asked to comment on the merits of the governor’s argument that state funding for education is unconstitutional, Attorney General Janet Mills was unequivocal: “Nothing in the Maine Constitution prevents the state legislature from funding public education.”