Tax Boosts to Aid K-12 Up for Vote in Several States
It's time for the rich to start paying their fair share of education costs, teachers' unions in Oregon and Maine say—and they have some targets in mind, if voters go along.
The driving factor: For the past few years, hundreds of paper and timber mills in the heavily forested states have shuttered, state tax revenue has dipped, and school districts have suffered a series of debilitating budget cuts.
After several frustrating years of wrestling with legislators to boost K-12 revenue, the unions are taking two carefully worded tax initiatives directly to those states' voters this fall.
Oregon voters will decide whether to impose a 2.5 percent tax on corporate gross sales that exceed $25 million. In Maine, voters will decide whether to levy an additional 3 percent surcharge on the portion of any household income exceeding $200,000 per year.
If passed, both measures—among a handful of education-related tax proposals on statewide ballots Nov. 8—could potentially raise millions more for the states' public school systems.
For far too long, proponents of the ballot measures argue, lower-income residents and communities have shouldered the vast majority of the states' rising education costs through property taxes, while corporations and higher- income communities benefit from company tax loopholes and inequitable school funding formulas.
"Our tax code has been rigged in a way that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest Mainers," said John Kosinski, a lobbyist for the Maine Education Association who's leading the state's campaign. "We're saying there's a better way."
But opponents to Oregon's Measure 97 and Maine's Question 2, say the measures are manipulative and will hurt the poor, not the rich.
Dana Conner, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said raising taxes on the wealthy will lead them to leave the state for lower taxes—and take the jobs they bring with them.
" 'Tax the rich' is a common cry you hear worldwide, but, truthfully, I don't buy it for a minute," Conner said. "These people, quite often, have very responsible positions, they employ people, they put money back into the economy, and they're making philanthropic contributions we don't want to lose."
Besides, he said, citing research from the state's former education commissioner, putting more money into an already flawed funding formula will only exacerbate inequality between rich and poor districts.
In Oregon, Rebecca Tweed, the campaign coordinator for the "NO on 97: Defeat the Tax on Oregon Sales" campaign, said the 1,000 companies that will be taxed if the measure passes will just tack those extra costs onto their products.
"This is a wolf in sheep's clothing," she said. "It's a hidden, regressive sales tax on low-income, everyday Oregonians."
Revenue Soft Spots
Across the country, revenue for K-12 public schools has modestly risen in recent years as property values have rebounded since the recession and people spend more money.
But in some states where tax revenue is heavily dependent on natural resources such as timber, coal, and oil, public school districts continue to suffer.
Legislators, especially in conservative states, are notoriously reluctant to raise taxes unless a court tells them to. So voters, in some cases, have decided to sidestep the legislative process.
Of the more than 153 ballot measures being proposed this year across the country, four would significantly raise general revenue for public school systems.
Cigarettes, Sales Levies
In addition to the Maine and Oregon measures, voters in Missouri will decide whether to increase the cigarette tax from 17 cents to 67 cents per pack to expand pre-K services. That proposal is expected to bring in $300 million annually.
And Oklahoma's voters will decide whether to raise the sales tax to 9 percent from 8 percent. The money would, among other expenditures, provide the state's teachers with a $5,000 raise.
In 2010, at the height of the recession, more than eight states had ballot initiatives that would affect school funding, a record number, according to an analysis by Daniel G. Thatcher, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Voters in four states are being asked to approve ballot initiatives that would use tax increases to dramatically increase the amount of money school districts receive each year.
Question 2: Would levy an additional 3 percent surcharge on the portion of any household income exceeding $200,000 per year to provide the state’s school system with $157 million annual state funding a year.
Amendment 3: Seeks to increase the state’s cigarette tax from 17 cents to 67 cents per pack in order to provide $300 million annually, mostly to expand the state’s pre-K services.
Question 779: Would raise the state’s sales tax from 8 to 9 percent in order to provide, among other things, a $5,000 annual raise for teachers.
Measure 97: Would impose a 2.5 percent tax on corporate gross sales that exceed $25 million to provide $3 billion worth of revenue to benefit public schools, health-care services, and services for senior citizens.
Of the 18 education initiatives that have been proposed since 2010, six have passed. In 2012, for example, Californians passed Proposition 30, which levied a temporary half-cent statewide sales tax, along with an income tax on those who make more than $250,000 a year. The initiative poured billions of dollars into the state's school system. Voters will decide on whether to renew it this year.
Tax-the-rich proposals are tricky, said Lawrence Picus, a school finance and policy expert at the University of Southern California.
"The trick is convincing people it's a free vote," he said. "You vote, and someone else pays the tax."
Unlike other initiatives this year, Maine and Oregon's ballot measures propose to tap high-income earners and large corporate revenue in resource-poor states.
Similar to the campaign behind California's Proposition 30, the ballot measures being proposed in Maine, which is heavily Republican, and Oregon, heavily Democratic, have those states' teachers' unions arguing that lower-income residents won't be hurt by voting yes.
"For the last two decades, we've been faced with disinvestment in our public schools," said Johanna Vaandering, the president of Oregon Education Association. "We're not asking for the world. We're asking the largest corporations to pay their fair share."
In Oregon and Maine, teachers have hit the streets testifying to voters about overcrowded classrooms, low pay, and duct-taped textbooks. Their campaigns have an "Occupy Wall Street" tinge to them, complete with colorful graphics that seek to highlight how much of the education costs the states' poorer residents have had to pay compared with those with higher incomes.
Oregon, which does not have a sales tax and relies heavily on a statewide income tax, has fallen almost $1 billion short of what officials say is needed to properly fund schools, proponents of the measure say. That's largely due to the continued slide of the timber industry and a growing poverty rate. In order to cushion themselves from budget cuts by the state, many districts have raised their property taxes.
Targeting the Formula
In 2010, voters approved two ballot measures to help balance the Oregon state budget, raising the income tax on those making more than $125,000 a year and the tax on some corporations.
But the state teachers' union points out that the legislature has steadily given tax breaks to the state's corporations over the years.
If Measure 97 passes this year, it would bring in $3 billion a year in revenue, according to Paul Warner, a legislative revenue officer for the state. The legislature would decide how to divvy the money up between the state's public education, health-care, and senior-citizen services.
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown last month endorsed the measure, though she has conceded that "consumers would have to bare some increased costs."
In Maine, meanwhile, the state teachers' union proposed Question 2 to fix what it calls an inequitable school funding system.
Like Oregon, the state has fallen short of paying its 55 percent required share of education costs, and districts have made up the difference, resulting in large disparities among them. If passed, Question 2 is estimated to bring in more than $157 million, but how that money would be distributed is in dispute.
By sending money to the state coffers, the union says, the funds would more equitably be sent back to districts.
But that's not necessarily so, said Jim Rier, a former Maine state education commissioner. Because of a quirk in the funding formula, any new money placed into the system would first go to districts with the lowest millage, or taxation, rates in the state. Those districts tend to be disproportionately wealthy.
"This is a much more complicated issue than just taxing the rich to make sure the education is equitable," said Rier. "This initiative is not going to solve that."
Jim Weber, the superintendent of the 6,000-student Lewiston public school system, has qualms about Question 2. The city's mostly poor population has swelled in recent years after several hundred refugees from Africa moved there. Voters have several times over passed bonds to build new schools and add on new classrooms. Resources are still tight.
"We don't have an empty classroom here," he said.
But Weber knows his neighboring suburbs, which have lower millage rates, would likely benefit more than his district from any increase to the state's budget.
"While, yes, we can use the additional funds, I'm not sure that raising taxes on income earners over $200,000 is the best way to do that," he said. "I'd hate to drive out of Maine the very people who are the biggest investors and employers in the state. And I'm concerned about a tax increase that didn't come through the more regular legislative process."
Vol. 36, Issue 03, Pages 1, 17Published in Print: September 7, 2016, as Tax Boosts to Aid K-12 Up for Vote