Voters Decide Education Finance Measures in Three States

By Joetta L. Sack & David J. Hoff — November 12, 2003 3 min read
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While voters in Colorado and New York state resoundingly defeated school funding measures in last week’s elections, Maine voters split their votes between two competing measures to ante up the state’s share of education funding.

But because there was not a majority for either of the two plans in Maine, the decision remains unresolved for now.

The vote in Maine, though, did suggest that state residents, concerned about increasing property taxes, want the state to undergo some type of tax reform. More than two-thirds chose one of two initiatives that would have increased the state share of education spending.

Last week, unofficial election tallies showed that Proposition 1A, which sought to increase the state’s portion to 55 percent for the 2004-05 school year and pay all local special education costs, had garnered about 37 percent of the vote. Proposition 1B, which would have given the state five years to meet the 55 percent goal, received about 35 percent of the vote.

About 27 percent of Maine voters chose an alternative, Proposition 1C, that would not have changed the current system.

Because there was no clear majority, the state constitution dictates that Proposition 1A, the biggest vote- getter, will go on the ballot without a competing measure in the next statewide election. The state will hold its 2004 primary elections in June.

State Covers 42 Percent

Maine now pays about 42 percent of precollegiate education costs. It would cost about $246 million in additional spending next year to meet a 55 percent mandate. Under Proposition 1A, about $100 million would go for special education costs.

The state is expecting to face revenue shortfalls of about $1 billion over the next two years, out of a biennial budget that totals about $5.5 billion. Gov. John E. Baldacci, a Democrat elected last year, and some state legislators argued that given the economic picture, it would be more fiscally responsible to ease into the 55 percent funding formula.

Gov. Baldacci, though, stated after the Nov. 4 vote that he would work with the Proposition 1A proponents to find a solution, according to news reports.

The measure’s proponents, including most education groups, argued that the state had waited long enough to provide relief for school districts. They pointed to a 1984 legislative initiative that promised that the state’s share would rise to 55 percent. That promise was never fulfilled.

“This is an issue we have been trying to bring to the legislature’s attention for a number of years,” said Michael Starn, the chief author of Proposition 1A and a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, which represents towns and municipalities and lobbies on education issues.

“Whether we’ve had good economic times or bad economic times,” he said, “there’s always been a reason why the state says it can’t provide the 55 percent. We felt they needed a nudge.”

Colorado and New York

In Colorado and New York, voters rejected proposed amendments to the state constitutions that would have made small changes in how school finance is handled.

Colorado voters, by a majority of 77 percent, turned down a proposal to raise the share of property taxes collected from homeowners. Advocates of the measure said the change would have meant only a small increase in property taxes.

The amendment failed because its supporters didn’t mount an aggressive campaign, and voters didn’t understand that its tax impact would have been limited, said Jane W. Urschel, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, which supported the measure.

“Coloradans don’t like to support something that they don’t know where it’s going to lead,” Ms. Urschel said.

In New York, a 54 percent majority of voters denied an attempt to allow school districts in the state’s 57 small cities to increase the amount of money they can borrow for construction, according to state records.

The state constitution prohibits the small cities from borrowing more than 5 percent of the value of the property within their borders. The cap dates back to a time when school boards in those cities could adopt their budgets without voter approval, and was meant to prevent school boards from raising taxes against property owners’ wishes.

Now that small cities must get voter approval for their budgets, they should be able to borrow up to 10 percent of their property values, as larger jurisdictions can do, said Sandra Lockwood, the president of the New York State School Boards Association.

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