Fort Fairfield Town Council Discusses Referendum Question #2 with a “Yes on 2” Advocate
By: David Deschesne
Fort Fairfield Journal, September 28, 2016
During the September Fort Fairfield town council meeting, Ms. Lou Willey, Regional Director for District 15 of the Maine Education Association representing the area from Fort Kent to Sherman, gave a presentation to ask the town council to consider supporting Question 2 which would inequitably raise taxes on the “rich” in Maine who earn more than $200,000 per year in order to make up for the education funding the legislature in Augusta has historically reneged on providing.
The campaign is innocuously named “Stand Up for Students” in an effort to distract from the fact that it is a tax that targets a small sector of society who is apt to be outvoted by an extremely large margin every time a vote comes up to take more of their money.
“Think of all of the funding that has been drained out of our schools over the last few years for one reason or the other. When we voted in 2008 when we asked the legislature to keep our funding up to a minimum of 55%, everyone voted, it was passed and we thought that was a wonderful idea. It's never been 55%. The last few years we've been running at about 45 to 47 percent of the funding,” explained Willey. “We need a hundred and fifty four extra million dollars to reach the 55 percent. Because we've never reached it, since 2008 through 2015 we are $1.2 billion behind in our school systems. Which means costing jobs, asking people to do more with less.”
Willey said several ideas were considered, but it was decided to settle on adding more taxes on the wealthy as a solution to the legislature's reneging on funding the schools. “So basically, the solution - and we thought of a lot of them - was to come up with this tax initiative. Some of my colleagues will call it not really a tax, you can't think of it that way. But it's a tax. The tax would be on the top 2% of the people who live in the State of Maine; people who make over $200,000 in personal income tax. It should not affect small businesses. People who make a clear profit over $200,000 - we are only going to be taxing what they make over $200,000. So if they make $230,000 we're just taxing that $30,000 at a 3% rate.
It is expected the tax, if passed, would generate an additional $157 million, the distribution of which would be entrusted to the same group of people who are already failing to adhere to the law that requires them to fund schools at 55% - the Maine Legislature—with the belief that they will somehow actually honor this law, this time.
Fort Fairfield town councilor, John Herold noted that there is no mandate that the legislature has to continue funding schools at their current level. “In the remainder of the funding universe for the schools, there is no mandate that this all has to be additional. It could be just folded in and you could still end up at 51% because the legislature might reduce other funding. That's a real danger to this, too.”
Willey responded by citing the proposed law from memory, because she did not bring an actual copy of it for her presentation at the town council meeting. “It says it has to be a supplement. So it can't take away, or let's say the governor can't say, well, he can, but, Fort Fairfield is going to receive almost $250,000 extra so that's $250,000 I'm not going to send.” [sic]
Fort Fairfield schools currently spend around $12,000 per year, per student to provide education services for around 500 K-12 students for a total annual budget of $6.1 million.
“Perhaps you trust the legislature more than I or some of us do,” said Herold. “The point is unless there is some kind of ironclad mechanism to make sure this is additional funding rather than saying, 'Okay we got $157 million extra so we'll just appropriate $157 million less someplace else' and end up with the same net result.”
“They believe there is an ironclad case in the law,” Willey said. “Again, nothing is a guarantee.”
Herold continued, “Another thing, you seem to think people who make $200,000 a year somehow exist in the stratosphere and are relatively disconnected from our daily existence. Therefore, they may be looked upon as golden geese and you can go to the golden goose and take the egg - which you're already doing with relatively high State tax rates and now you're going to add a 3% surcharge onto it and those eggs are leaving that goose's nest at a rather high rate of speed compared to other states. How do you keep them here?”
“Well, I don't have an answer to that,” Willey responded.
“Of course we need more tax money to spend more money on schools, that's a given,” said Herold. “I guess the question is how do we go about achieving that. This is one way, but I would prefer to see economic development occur that would create more taxable property, that would create more taxable income and a higher level of prosperity across the board and the taxes would come in from that at the same rate that they're coming in now, but more of it.”
“I agree with you, but I've lived in the County my whole life and I've not seen it grow, I've seen it diminish,” Willey replied. “We need something now to make our schools better and stronger.”
Herold said he would like to see the emphasis on a “more permanent and sustainable and, if you will, more fair means of achieving funding.”
Fort Fairfield town councilor Jason Barnes spoke up in agreement with Herold. “The problem is we already have legislation which is supposed to fund 55%. That's where the problem lies,” said Barnes. “That means at the voter booth we've got to make some changes. The other issue, as John stated, the level that we start taxing will affect businesses. There's many different types of businesses and how they're taxed and many individuals are taxed rather than businesses. It's going to affect them greatly throughout Aroostook County.”
Town councilor Scott Smith then noted to Willey, “During your presentation you said 'it should not affect business income.' What does that mean? Is it going to, or is it not going to?”
Willey responded, “Again, I don't know anything about that, I'm a kindergarten teacher. I don't know a whole lot about the tax code. But what I've been told is businesses are taxed differently than personal income tax and this is only supposed to apply to personal income tax, not necessarily a business tax.”
The audio of the complete discussion between Ms. Willey and the town council can be listened to online at www.fortfairfieldjournal.com in the September 21, 2016 town council meeting mp3 audio file. It occurs between 02:23 and 22:10 in the audio file's timeline.