Vote “Yes” On Question 1

(from Maine Townsman, May 2004)
By Geoff Herman, Director of State & Federal Relations, MMA
     Article's Sidebars: The Blended 1A/1B Compromise
                                Senate Resolution To Endorse Referendum Question 1-A

It was almost two years ago to the day that MMA launched the effort to develop and fight for the adoption of an initiative that would compel the proper level of state funding for K-12 public education in Maine and compel the Legislature to to undertake much-needed comprehensive tax reform.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

A great deal has been learned over the last two years, about the citizen initiative process, about the nature of the political-media establishment, about the depth of resistance among some interest groups to real tax reform (despite the rhetoric, in many cases, that belies that resistance), and about personal character.

In three weeks there shall be what any French literature professor would call the “denouement,” the final outcome of the central dramatic complication. The voters of Maine will go to the polls during the June 8th primary election and mark their ballots either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on Question 1, The School Finance and Tax Reform Act of 2003.

Just as was the case seven months ago, on November 4th 2004, the question on the ballot will be: Do you want the State to pay 55% of the cost of public education, which includes all special education costs, for the purpose of shifting costs from the property tax to state resources?

Unlike seven months ago, when the same question was on the ballot as “Question 1A,” there will be no “Question 1B competing measure” crafted by the Legislature. The question will be put before the voters as a clean, up-or-down vote.

Voters in favor of requiring the Legislature to actually meet its longstanding (but aggressively disregarded) commitment to pay for 55% of the cost of public education from the state’s General Fund will vote ‘yes.’ Those who are opposed to enforcing that obligation will vote ‘no.’

It’s almost as simple as that, but great deal has happened over the course of the last two years. Changes that have reshaped the effort.

When the initiative was initially developed two years ago, the Essential Programs and Services (EPS) school funding model was still on the drawing boards. It was certainly not strong enough to be referenced in the initiative as the authoritative measure of K-12 school spending. Now it is.

After the vote last November 4th, it became clear that the voters of Maine strongly supported the state meeting its commitment to the schools. 38% of the voters supported the “1A” proposal that would compel immediate compliance. 35% supported the “1B” proposal that got to the same place except six years from now, pushing compliance out to the year 2010. In combination, 73% of the voters supported getting an enforceable commitment of state funding for the schools.  The only difference of opinion was focused on the immediacy of implement-ation…the immediacy of property tax relief.

Shortly after the November 4th election, the two major organizations supporting the “1A” initiative — the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Education Association — entered into compromise discussions, first with the Governor’s Office and subsequently with the Legislature.  The goal was to find the compromise that effectively blends the vision of Question 1A initiative with the pragmatics of the “1B” competing measure.

For every element of any compromise, there is a range of options and within that range there are certain points below which, or above which, one of the respective parties is unable to concede. Taking into account the parameters established by the “1A” citizen initiative and the parameters established by the “1B” competing measure, those break-off points were quickly identified. Working within the range of negotiable issues, the compromise package was quickly defined.

That compromise proposal was reached back in December, and both MMA and MEA have stuck to it ever since. The compromise agreement was first struck during the negotiations with the Governor’s Office, and described at the time as the “blending of 1A/1B.” As will be noted in the detailed description of the compromise provided in a sidebar to this article, the blended agreement involved a whole lot of compromising on the part of MMA and MEA.

The very nature of compromise is to find the middle ground that works for all parties. In this case, no one can fairly accuse either the municipal or school communities of any resistance to honest compromise or any unwillingness to support to the very end the compromise deal that was struck, re-struck and will hopefully be re-struck again.

Both MMA and MEA thought a compromise agreement had been first reached with Governor Baldacci in December, but it didn't come to pass.

In February, similar discussions began in a formal manner when the President of the Senate (Sen. Beverly Daggett of Augusta) and the Speaker of the House (Rep. Pat Colwell of Gardiner) convened a working group of 10 legislators from both parties and both the Senate and House to explore a 1A/1B compromise.

In March, this so-called “Tax Working Group” unanimously agreed to the same essential terms of the compromise that had been developed during the negotiations with the Governor’s Office. The Working Group accurately described the compromise agreement  as the essential element — the “foundation” — of any tax reform plan designed to provide sustained property tax relief.

Despite the fact that the Tax Working Group unanimously endorsed the compromise, and despite of the fact that the education funding compromise was genuinely recognized throughout the Legislature as the foundation of any successful tax relief or tax reform plan, it was not enacted by Maine’s lawmakers. As described in more detail in the Overview and Saga of Tax Reform articles in this edition of the Townsman, virtually all tax relief and tax reform proposals developed by the Legislature died on the table, if it make it that far. Adding to that injury, the Legislature endorsed such a minimal increase to the school funding appropriation this session, the property tax bills in September will have to absorb the state’s inaction, to the tune of $60 million.

If the politicians make the claim this campaign season that they balanced the state budget “without raising taxes,” do not let them get away with the rhetoric. A $60 million tax bill was effectively passed onto the property taxpayers of Maine in what has become an annual sleight of hand.

Even in the darkness of this deeply disappointing legislative session, there was a glimmer of light that keeps the compromise alive. At the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, after it became obvious that legislative inaction on the tax reform and property tax relief fronts would prevail, a resolution was presented to the Senate by Sen. Ken Gagnon of Waterville and Sen. Art Mayo of Bath.

The proposed Senate resolution, reproduced verbatim in a sidebar to this article, provides for the first time a declaration of legislative support for Question 1 on June 8th, with the understanding that the implementation of the voters’ directive would be accomplished according to the terms of the compromise agreement.

Fourteen of the state’s 35 Senators endorsed the resolution, and so it was not adopted.  The point was well made, however, thanks to the outreach efforts of Senators Gagnon and Mayo who proposed the resolution, and the green-light vote of the 12 other Senators who endorsed it.

There are legislators now who have declared their intention to work cooperatively with the municipal and school communities to construct the school funding and property tax reform package that the voters and property taxpayers of Maine are clearly demanding. No one has ever said it is an easy task. To properly fund the state commitments to K-12 education will require action, decision-making, establishing clear priorities and properly funding them. The fundamental directive that taxation changes must be “revenue neutral” is still part of the Question 1 initiative, as it always was. The firm directive that a comprehensive management plan be adopted to address the legitimate concern with Maine’s overall tax burden is still a part of the Question 1 initiative, as it always was.

The Senate resolution was an unusual political expression, to be sure, but to implement all that is contained in the Question 1 initiative and the compromise, only leadership will prove to be the antidote to politics-as-usual.

The message needs to be sent. “Finish the job, keep the promise.”

Please vote yes on Question 1 on June 8th.