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Greg Kesich: LePage’s fuzzy arithmetic – cut school staff, taxes to improve schools

Nutrition advice can be confusing. Vegans say don’t eat meat. Paleos say you should eat little else.

Sugar, bread, milk, eggs and wine all have their critics (and also some fans). Even a banana can be controversial.

But no one ever says “don’t eat your greens.” So when in doubt, you know you could always grab a bowl of spinach with a clear conscience.

In the world of public policy, education is your bowl of spinach.

Liberals and conservatives agree that it is the key to a prosperous future, not just for individuals but also for the state as a whole. Public education makes it possible for poor kids to escape poverty. An educated workforce attracts investors and makes it possible for businesses to grow. Schools anchor communities because families want to live where their children will get a good education.

The only problem is how to pay for it.

Education funding is on the menu again in Augusta this year, and lawmakers have two diets to choose from. They should be careful about anything that sounds too good to be true.

Gov. LePage arrived on the scene with a proposal that sounds like the nutrition advice torn from the back page of a supermarket tabloid. His plan is to spend more on education, which he accomplishes by pretending that school administration is not education. Like he did with teacher retirement liabilities, he would put central office costs onto the local taxpayers – to encourage them, he says, to consolidate school districts.

Oh, and he wants to cut taxes again. Income taxes, that is, especially for those with the highest incomes, which would help a few people a whole lot. His plan to end state funding for administrators however would dump costs onto property taxpayers.

Another plan was presented last fall to the voters, who liked it so much they made it state law.

It would increase state appropriations for schools by $150 million a year, which for the first time would get the state to reach its commitment to fund 55 percent of the cost of schools from the General Fund. It gets there with a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 a year, affecting the top 2 percent of taxpayers.

That may not be the best way to pay for schools, but it’s the only realistic one up for discussion this year.

In 2004, Maine people went to the polls and voted that 55 percent of the state’s education budget should come from the state, meaning money raised from income and sales taxes. The idea was to take pressure off local property taxpayers, whose share of the burden did not match their ability to shoulder it.

The people voted and 55 percent became the law, but like a New Year’s resolution to eat better, we never got there. It’s just something we can all feel guilty about when we pledge to do better in the future.

This failure to reach 55 percent is often cited as a proof that the Legislature never listens to the people, but the history is a little more complicated than that.

After the referendum passed, the state edged close to the…

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