AUGUSTA, Maine — Communities across Maine say they’re confused by changes to education and tax policy contained in a last-minute budget deal that’s displeasing to Republican Gov. Paul LePage and unlikely to offer promised relief to all taxpayers.
The $7.1 billion, two-year budget that ended a three-day government shutdown includes education initiatives that LePage fought for — such as reduced funding for superintendents and a requirement that 70 percent of funding be spent in the classroom by 2022. The budget eliminates a 3 percent income surtax on high-earners supporters hoped would provide up to $320 million for education and relief to local taxpayers.
Nevertheless, LePage called the budget “irresponsible.” It lacks his rejected idea for a statewide teacher contract with money to equalize pay among rural and other teachers.
The budget partially offsets the surtax by adding $48 million in education funding for the coming school year and another $114 million for the following year, for a total of $162 over the two years.
Lawmakers have touted a budgetary provision that school districts must use half the extra funding for tax relief. But taxpayers may not see relief this year, due to an exception for districts whose voters already decided how to spend additional funds.
Upon signing the budget, LePage called the spending a “$162 million ransom for a phony tax bill,” and promised next year there’ll be “some hell to pay in education.”
“We emptied the war chest on everything else in the state to take care of education, and we are getting a subpar system,” he said, Maine Public reported.
The governor has long focused on rising per-pupil costs and Maine’s roughly 130 superintendents.
Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said the budget continues to shift costs to local communities already working on regional partnerships. The budget starts a four-year phase-out of state funding for district administration costs, with the state instead offering to help fund up to a dozen regional school management centers across Maine.
The boost didn’t increase state funding for about 60 school districts, according to a Portland Press Herald database. Scarborough will receive $1.4 million less in state funding compared with the 2016-2017 school year, while East Millinocket — once home to the shuttered Great Northern Paper Mill — will receive $145,089 less.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said the state formula accounts for factors including special education and poor students.
The budget boosts funding for districts like RSU 56, which represents the western Maine towns of Carthage, Dixfield, Canton and Peru. Barbara Chow, chair of the district’s board of directors, said the district’s had to cut back music and gifted and talented programs as the tax base shrinks.
“We don’t rely on getting more money from the state ever,” Chow said. She said the district will use its $275,000 in additional funds to lower tax rates.
The budget also delayed an expansion of a property tax exemption program. While Saco prepared for $200,000 less state revenue, Maine Municipal Association legislative advocate Kate Dufour said the move was a “huge surprise” to municipalities already struggling with the state’s rolled back revenue-sharing program with municipalities.
Democratic Sen. Rebecca Millett said she expects lawmakers will tackle “the mess” of changes next year. Meanwhile, Maine School Management Association Executive Director Steve Bailey said “it’s difficult to create and implement policy changes in a budget document.”
DuFour said the one-time source for the $162 million “just stalls the conversation for two more years.”