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Maine Coalition Seeks Tax Increase To Assist Schools

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A coalition of Maine education groups is calling for a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax to assist the schools, whose state aid would be frozen or cut under the budget proposed by Gov. John R. McKernan Jr.

Launching their "1 Cent for Education" campaign late last month, the Maine Teachers Association, Maine School Superintendents Association, Maine School Boards Association, and other organizations are urging the legislature to raise the sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents, with the resulting revenues reserved for education.

"A penny increase in the sales tax committed to education would restore $200 million to our schools and remove a tremendous burden from local property taxes," argued Robert B. Kautz, president of the superintendents' group.

Otherwise, Mr. Kautz warned, spending shortfalls "will destroy the integrity and quality of our educational system."

Mr. McKernan, who does not support the tax-increase effort, wants to cap state spending for the next two years.

The Governor's proposal for education has been described as a "freeze," or continuation of funding at its present level. But Keith Harvie, communications director for the mta, said that "there's no question that it's a cut." M.T.A. officials cite inflation and formula-driven changes in funding as the reasons.

Even so, it is not clear if the legis8lature will accept the sales-tax hike to close the gap, Mr. Harvie acknowledged.

Lawmakers' reaction to the proposal so far "has been cautious," he said. Most politicians say the 1-cent increase is a good idea and that committing more money to education would be commendable, he said.

But "they are reluctant to be among the first to come out and supel10lport increased tax revenues," Mr. Harvie observed.

The legislature, which held a hearing on education spending last week, is not expected to conclude work on the fiscal 1992-93 budget until June.

"It's going to be another lengthy process," the teachers' union spokesman added. But "the earlier they can get it done, the better it is for schools."

Mr. McKernan's current funding proposal "violates the state's commitment" to education, asserted Elisabeth Crowley, president of the school boards' group. "Is that fair to our taxpayers or our children? We do not think so. We simply must have increased state assistance."

But Mr. McKernan opposes the proposed tax increase, his press sec4retary, Willis Lyford, emphasized last week.

"Even if he did support it," Mr. Lyford added, "he wouldn't support it being dedicated just to education."

Nonetheless, Mr. McKernan has not ruled out entirely the possibility of some form of tax increase or new revenue source, Mr. Lyford said.

As an indication of support for their proposal, tax-hike advocates cite a February poll of some 500 Maine voters. Conducted by a Boston firm, Bannon Research, the survey found that "nearly two-thirds ... favor increasing the sales tax by 1 cent and dedicating the money to education, while only one-third oppose this option."

The poll also revealed that "people believe there is waste in state government," but their views "do not apply to education," Bannon Research concluded.

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