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Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as Second Time a Charm For Maine Measure

Second Time a Charm For Maine Measure

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Maine voters last week approved a school funding increase of roughly $245 million a year, but state leaders may spend several years trying to find ways to generate the extra money.

The June 8 ballot measure asked voters if they would like the state to pay 55 percent of the costs for K-12 education. Right now, the state pays about 43 percent.

"I think we now have a people’s mandate" for higher spending on education, said Rob Walker, the president of the 25,000-member Maine Education Association. The group is an affiliate of the National Education Association, and worked with the Maine Municipal Association, an organization of local governments, to help pass the measure.

According to unofficial results, 55 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of the measure, while 45 percent voted against it. Turnout was said to be around 15 percent.

Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, opposed the ballot measure known as Question 1, saying the state can’t afford it. He promised to implement the 55 percent plan, but only if it is coupled with state income-tax breaks that he contends would help Maine’s economy.

"As required in Question 1, we in Augusta will develop a plan to create incentives to reduce government spending at the state and local level, and thereby decrease Maine’s overall tax burden," he said in written remarks.

"While Question 1 sets a target for education funding, state government does not now have sufficient revenues to implement the initiative," Gov. Baldacci added.

The governor aligned himself with groups that opposed the school funding plan, including the Maine Children’s Alliance, which fought the measure along with the state chamber of commerce and some business leaders.

"Our issue was that if they suddenly had to take $250 million out of the budget, a lot of services to kids are going to have to be cut," said Elinor Goldberg, the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit policy and advocacy group in Augusta.

Saying Yes, Again

Voters had also endorsed the 55 percent plan in a different, less conclusive referendum last November. On that question, 37 percent of voters supported boosting the state’s share of education costs to 55 percent for the 2004-05 school year. But 35 percent chose an option that would have allowed Maine five years to implement the changes. Another 27 percent voted not to change the system.

The state constitution required that the measure that received the most votes last November appear on ballots during the next statewide election, which was during the state’s political primaries last week. ("Voters Decide Education Finance Measures in Three States," Nov. 12, 2003.)

Gov. Baldacci has cited the state’s troubled finances in refusing to back a faster infusion of money for schools. Revenue shortfalls have been estimated to reach $1 billion for the current two-year, $5.5 billion budget.

While state law requires that the legislature adopt the plan approved by voters, the lawmakers are not required even to debate it until next January.

Educational needs around the state are noticeable, especially in poorer rural areas, said Ted Coladarci, an education professor at the University of Maine in Orono.

Teacher salaries do not fare well in national comparisons, and many school buildings are in disrepair, Mr. Coladarci added. He added that the state requires its school districts to create and give student-achievement tests at the local level, which is expensive for some areas.

"It requires quite a bit of expertise in assessment, curriculum, and instruction, and small systems understandably will have, or are having, a hard time with that," Mr. Coladarci said of the testing requirements.

In seeking voter approval on Question 1, the Maine Education Association made sure its base of support turned out at the polls last week. Mr. Walker, the teachers’ union president, said the MEA had relied on its members and their friends to get out the vote, and had held informational meetings with most local union affiliates.

"It all paid off," said Mr. Walker, who formerly taught 7th grade science in Lewiston, Maine, for 29 years.

Mr. Walker argues that Maine has undercut support for its schools for many years. He notes that 1984 legislation had promised the state would cover 55 percent of school funding costs, but that its aid has never reached that level.

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Pages 31,34

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