Governor slams 'meat ax' approach
BY A.J. HIGGINS OF THE NEWS STAFF - AUGUSTA - Gov. John E. Baldacci and legislative leaders pledged Wednesday to cooperate with supporters of a plan to increase local school funding approved by Maine voters in Tuesday's balloting.
A united front is necessary, they said, to launch a successful strategy that will defeat a controversial tax cap plan on the November ballot. The question, advanced by tax activist Carol Palesky and the Maine Taxpayers Action Network, limits property taxes to $10 per $1,000 of assessed value based on 1996-97 valuations. Opponents claim the cap would cut current municipal revenues in half.
"We need a united front to point out that the extreme approach offered by Carol Palesky is a meat-ax approach and does nothing to solve tax relief," Baldacci said. "What I want to do is galvanize the opposition and unite the opposition to the fall referendum question."
A day earlier, the governor appeared in television ads in an unsuccessful attempt to convince voters to reject Question 1. The ballot question requires the state to increase its current level of local educational funding from about 43 percent to 55 percent. On Wednesday, with 98 percent, or 625 of 641 precincts reporting, unofficial returns indicated 55 percent of the voters supported Question 1. Just 19 percent of all eligible Maine voters participated in the balloting.
Although the question has been interpreted to suggest the state would have to identify about $250 million in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, to reach the 55 percent target, a measured funding approach is more likely, according to the question's supporters. The Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Education Association - two of the driving forces that united to stage the successful campaign - reiterated their commitment Wednesday to an incremental increase toward the funding target over a four-year period.
Rob Walker, executive director of the MEA, said Question 1 was "a sensible approach" to educational funding and property tax relief. He expects planning to take place with the governor's office to implement the initiative. Baldacci and others would like to develop a strategy involving Question 1 as part of a unified campaign against the Palesky initiative.
"The unity of the coalition will be the strength that overcomes the extreme meat-ax approach," Baldacci said. "That sends a strong message to people who are looking for signals."
Precise details of how the Legislature will fund the question while remaining true to the "revenue neutral" goals of the legislation will have to be worked out by legislative leaders who professed their commitment to the measure in prepared statements Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Ken Gagnon, D-Waterville, said Question 1 represented "a responsible plan to properly fund education and reform Maine's tax structure." He added that implementing the measure will hinge on the Legislature's ability to "rise above the partisanship that often hinders tax discussions."
"Then agreements can be reached," he said.
Democratic House Floor Leader John Richardson of Brunswick and House Speaker Patrick Colwell, D-Gardiner, agreed lawmakers will have to work together to ensure increased school funding does not compromise other vital state programs.
"During this Legislature, a total of $1.5 billion has been cut from projected state spending," Colwell said. "There is no surplus money available, and many state programs have already been cut back sharply."
Republican leaders said Tuesday's vote on Question 1 amounted to an affirmation of GOP goals that place a priority on lower taxes and increased school funding. Sen. Paul Davis said the people's decision amounts to a black mark on majority Democrats in the Legislature.
"[Democrats] have controlled the Legislature for 30 years and during that time raised taxes and decreased education funding," Davis said. "The Democrats are out of touch with the concerns of average Mainers."
Democrats counter that Republicans are responsible for this year's impasse that blocked agreement on a tax reform package.
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