Sen. Dana Dow
More than a decade ago, voters approved a referendum to require the state to fund at least 55 percent of public education costs. Last November we passed Question 2 as a means of providing an additional $123 million for our classrooms. This goes to show that funding our public schools remains a top priority for all Mainers, myself included.
Given the chance to increase education funding, the people of Maine will invariably say yes. Why? Because we correctly believe an investment in education is an investment in our children and, therefore, in our future. As a former public school teacher, I could not agree more.
But as a state legislator, I also see another side of the education funding equation: it is an enormous cost to our state that competes for funding along with other priorities, such as services for our elderly and disabled, safe roads and bridges, state police, and many others.
One major problem which must be addressed is the huge decline in the number of K-12 students since the peak in 1972. At the peak, Maine had 251,000 K-12 students; today it’s down to 181,000. Nowadays, there isn’t a single school system north of Bangor that qualifies as Class A in size. My ancestral home of Presque Isle in Aroostook County has lost nearly 40,000 inhabitants since 1970. As everyone knows, Maine has an aging population and the highest average age in the country.
Even considering all of this, approximately one-third of our state’s current $6.7 billion budget goes to public education. The idea that Maine is spending less on education these days is just plain false. In 2007, General Purpose Aid for Local Schools was about $911 million. In our current budget, we are spending more than $986 million. Although funding to local schools (and nearly every other state program) dipped during the recession, it has otherwise increased steadily. Money for other public education programs, such as the University of Maine System, Community College System, and Maine Maritime Academy, has gone up as well.
Maine voters approved Question 2, but that increased funding for K-12 education comes at a tremendous cost. The funding mechanism is a new 3 percent surtax on Maine households earning more than $200,000. It creates the highest tax bracket in the nation – a dubious honor for a state trying to attract more people and businesses.
While this was characterized by some as a “tax on the rich,” the negative impact on all Mainers is already being felt. Many of those who fall into this category are the small-business owners who are the backbone of Maine’s economy. They are the ones who employ our fellow Mainers.
At a hearing before the Legislature’s Taxation Committee last month, Maine business owners testified that this new tax is forcing them to scale back on hiring and expansion plans – and as a small-business owner myself, I can sympathize with their situation. Many are contemplating leaving the state altogether for destinations like New Hampshire, where the tax burden is significantly lower.
What’s even more discouraging about the way Question 2 was created is the way the money is distributed. According to data from the Maine Department of Education, approximately 130 Maine public schools, many of those in rural areas, will receive no additional classroom funding, while larger, more urban districts will.
We need to have the difficult conversation about our school systems, the past 45 years of population declines, and how this decline is impacting our economy.
Young families have moved out of state as our jobs have left our borders for more competitive locations in other states and overseas. All areas of government are in need of funds – funds which don’t exist because of a stagnant economy and our declining population. The true revenue pie hasn’t grown, yet our needs are greater.
I will be the first to advocate for Maine’s teachers and do everything we can to ensure they have the resources they need, which is why I’ve proposed L.D. 571, a bill to eliminate the new income tax hike and use other revenue streams to reach 55 percent without doing so off the backs of employers and business owners.
But at the same time, we must do everything we can to bring and keep businesses and jobs in Maine, or else the future will be even bleaker.
(Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, represents all of Lincoln County except Dresden, plus Washington and Windsor. He is the Senate chair of the Taxation Committee and also sits on the Insurance and Financial Services Committee.)