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Maine Voters Can Boost Education, Tax Fairness at Same Time

October 5, 2016 at 12:30 PM

Maine’s voters will consider a ballot measure in November to roll back the state’s recent tax cuts for the wealthy and use the revenue to invest in their future by improving the state’s schools.  That’s a very good idea.

Maine is among a number of states that cut income taxes mainly for the wealthy in recent years, weakening their ability to support high-quality schools and other public services that form a foundation for a strong economy.  Maine is struggling to make needed school investments because tax cuts enacted since 2011 cost the state nearly $300 million a year in lost revenue, most of which went to the top 20 percent of income earners.  Meanwhile, the governor and lawmakers failed to meet a state requirement that voters enacted over a decade ago to cover at least 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education.  Today, the state provides just 47 percent, leaving more to local governments. 

The impact is particularly hard on schools in communities with low property values, since local K-12 funding comes from the property tax.  As a result, children in Maine’s lower-income communities —already disadvantaged — may be falling even further behind.

November’s ballot measure would create a fund to improve K-12 schools, funded through an additional 3 percent tax on income over $200,000.  It would raise $159 million in the first year, bringing the state closer to meeting its 55 percent obligation and reducing the pressure for property tax hikes.  Polling suggests it has strong public support.

The measure would also make Maine’s tax system fairer (see chart).  Even with the increase, which would affect only the top 2 percent of filers, the highest-income Mainers would still pay a smaller share of their income in state and local taxes than middle-income households.  But their share would be more comparable than it is today.

Big income tax cuts for the wealthy haven’t worked out very well for Maine’s schools, but voters have a chance this fall to reverse course and put the state on a path to a better future.  

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