School (funding) is for losers

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Let’s discuss the mind-numbing topic of financing Maine’s schools.

Just kidding.

It’s summertime, and no normal person wants to think about paying for education. That can wait until fall. Or winter. This is the season for focusing on more engaging topics, such as beer, sex and afternoon naps. Although, to be honest, those things are mostly what I think about in fall and winter, too, leaving almost no space on my mental agenda for considering how to cover the costs of teachers, laptops and sex-education videos.

Given the likelihood most of us will be no more inclined to tackle the matter of school funding at some later date, we might as well get it out of the way now. There’s even a compelling reason for pondering the problem sooner rather than later. The November ballot features a referendum question that has nothing to do with beer, sex or afternoon naps (sadly, that’s all too often the case with referendum questions), but does attempt to address how we pay for schools.

The question reads: “Do you want to add a 3% 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?”

Or to put it more succinctly, “Do you want to soak the rich to pay for schools?”

In general, I’m in favor of taxing people who aren’t me, which is why I think there should be onerous duties levied on tofu, Zumba and “Independence Day” sequels. Forcing somebody with lousy taste in food, exercise or entertainment to pay is nearly as attractive as putting that burden on the wealthy. But, as is often the case, it’s not that simple.

According to the initiative’s supporters, this new tax would raise $157 million a year, enough cash to increase the state’s share of local education expenses from the current 47.5 percent to 55 percent. In theory, this would result in lower property taxes and better schools.

In reality, it would result in neither.

Those whose memories haven’t been dulled by beer, sex and afternoon naps may recall that in 2004 voters approved a referendum requiring the state to pay 55 percent of the cost of education. That proposal became – and still is – the law of the land. But like so many laws of the land that proved inconvenient, this statute has been routinely ignored by the Legislature and the governor.

How can they do that?

Easy.

Every two years, the Legislature approves a budget allocating money for schools. And every two years, that figure is preceded by legal gobbledygook explaining that notwithstanding the will of the people, our senators, representatives and governor are permitted by the state Constitution (Article IX, Aisle 13, Shelf 3, right next to the tofu, Zumba outfits and “Independence Day” DVDs) to do whatever they damn well please, which is why they’re not funding education at anywhere near the legally mandated level of 55 percent. No mere referendum can compel them to do so.

If this new initiative passes, it will meet much the same fate. The 3 percent surcharge will almost certainly go into effect – politicians love tax increases for which they can’t be blamed – but there’s little chance the extra cash will be used to boost the state’s share of school costs. If Democrats are in charge when the tax kicks in Jan. 1, 2017, they’ll be inclined to use that funding for higher teacher salaries and to pay for expensive new education programs so kids won’t grow up to embrace a life of beer, sex and afternoon naps. If Republicans are in control, expect the money to be siphoned off for income tax cuts. If the current split in state government persists, expect absolutely nothing to happen. The money will just sort of evaporate like GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin when he’s asked about endorsing Donald Trump.

I’d like to see the state pay more than half the cost of local education. Hell, I’d like to see them pay the whole bill. But given the proclivities of our elected leaders, that’s never going to happen.

Best to spend your summer not thinking about it.

I’ll read emails sent to aldiamon@herniahill.net right after my beer, sex and afternoon nap.