AUGUSTA – State government will be forced to shoulder a larger share of local education costs after Tuesday’s statewide election which saw scant participation by Maine voters.
With nearly 85 percent of 641 precincts reporting, the Question 1 citizen initiative cruised to victory with 55 percent of the vote as Mainers demanded a break from rising property taxes. Workers on both sides of the issue acknowledged that Tuesday’s light voter turnout was instrumental to the outcome.
Advanced by Citizens to Reduce Local Property Taxes Statewide, a political action group composed largely of municipal officials and school workers, Question 1 was presented to the voters for the second time in seven months after the proposal failed to win a majority of the vote in a three-way race last November.
The question asked: “Do you want the state to pay 55 percent 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?”
The initiative requires the Legislature to honor its 1984 pledge to have the state pay 55 percent of local education costs. The state now contributes about 43 percent of the cost with the remainder paid for locally through property taxes. Proponents – such as the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Education Association – maintain Question 1 would save municipalities about $250 million annually that could be used to lower property taxes.
Rob Walker of the MEA declared victory shortly before 10:30 p.m. as the balloting results from Maine’s larger voting districts reinforced the question’s lead.
“For us, this was a clear and decisive victory,” he said. “Part of our strategy was to convince our voters to get to the polls, and we did just that.”
Because the measure doesn’t tell the state how to pay for its increased share of education costs, the Legislature has 45 days from when it next convenes to craft legislation to finance the plan. The Legislature is not scheduled to convene again until January. Question 1 calls for the additional education funding to be provided in the 2005 fiscal year that begins July 1, 2004.
Some supporters have maintained the state should immediately provide municipalities with the full 55 percent share while others have said they would be willing reach the target incrementally over a few years.
While supporters claim they are only shifting responsibility for educational funding back to the appropriate source, opponents have maintained that forcing the state immediately to pay 55 percent of school costs would only force lawmakers and the governor to raise taxes elsewhere or decimate state programs – or possibly both.
Gov. John Baldacci and members of the anti-Question 1 political action committee, Mainers for Real and Responsible Tax Relief, a coalition of businesses, state workers, health care industry representatives and others, are convinced the state is already on the right road to tax reform. An Essential Programs and Services policy for schools promises to promote reductions in school administrative costs, phase in additional revenues to reach the 55 percent educational funding target over five years, and provide an additional $70 million for education next year.
Baldacci said Tuesday night that he would work with the Legislature and Question 1 advocates to develop an implementation plan for the initiative.
“Even though it was not a heavy turnout, the people have spoken and I have heard them clearly,” the governor said. “This directive is not without its challenges and I remain encouraged that the proponents continue to be willing to accept a phased-in approach for funding.”
Dana Connors, president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, said that while he did not dispute the voting results he was disappointed that so few Mainers had chosen to cast ballots in an important election.
“It’s hardly a mandate,” Connors said. “I guess there’s a major civics lesson in this for us all. Now we have to ask what the vote tells us and what do we do about it.”
On Nov. 4, voters addressed Question 1 when it appeared on the ballot as Question 1A along with a competing measure, Question 1B and a none-of-the-above choice, known as Question 1C.
Question 1A arrived on the ballot as a citizen initiative spearheaded by the MMA, a lobbying and consultant group for municipalities, in a petition drive that attracted more than 100,000 signatures. Ensuing efforts by the Legislature, the governor and the MMA failed to produce a compromise that would avert the need to place the question on the ballot. Question 1A moved forward and its opponents planned their counterattack.
Concerned that passage of 1A could result in serious funding cutbacks for the state’s Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program, many of the state’s large industries got behind the governor and the Legislature’s efforts to short-circuit Question 1A. They developed a competing measure called Question 1B that promised to reach the 55 percent education funding target over five years rather than the immediate payoff demanded by MMA and MEA. A third political action committee called for Mainers to reject both proposals by voting for Question 1C with the promise of launching a more intensive look at state tax policy in a future legislative session.
With 51 percent of eligible Maine voters casting ballots for all three questions last fall, Question 1A received 38 percent of the vote, followed by Question 1B with 35 percent and Question 1C with 27 percent. Maine law requires competing questions in such referendums to receive a majority of the vote in order to prevail. In the absence of a majority decision, the law demands the question with the highest number of votes to appear unopposed on the ballot in the next special or regular election.