The Maine Education Association hosted an event at the Augusta Civic Center Tuesday, a full-on lobby effort to pressure legislators to vote against cuts to education.
It was a dine and wine affair, with about 200 teachers and other education professionals assigned to table seating at a ratio of about 7-1, educators-to-legislators.
“We want you to have casual dinner conversation” with legislators, according to MEA staffer Wanda Ingham. “And, of course, the bar is open.”
Instructions included making sure conversation included the devastation that would result in cuts to school programs, compared to positive experiences these teachers have experienced in their classrooms.
Talking points, in case teachers got confused, were included in the packets they received at the door and MEA staff members were available to step in to help cement the message.
There were three areas required to be covered over dinner and drinks:
• Push the idea of raising sin taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, which could generate $40 million in new revenue;
• Push the idea of a temporary 1 percent increase in the sales tax, which could generate $100 million in new revenue;
• Get a commitment from the legislator seated at the table to “vote against any state budget that includes cuts to education.”
According to MEA President Chris Galgay, “People would be willing to pay more if they knew it was going to education.”
This private audience with legislators was organized with real intensity, Ingham joked, as she must have sent “four invitations, six phone calls and seven e-mails” to each legislator.
Invited lawmakers knew, she said, that they had to attend.
This, folks, is how the MEA lobby works. Pushing hard and getting results.
Individual taxpayers — Joe and Jane Maine — are no competition.
There is no question that Maine has abdicated its duty to fund 55 percent of education, as mandated by voters through referendum, or that last year’s $38 million cuts to education across the state were painful.
Teachers have taken furlough days and the average increase in their estimated average $46,462 annual salary last year was 1 percent.
Teaching is not an easy job, and most Maine teachers work hard and are very good at what they do.
But the same could be said for other Mainers who didn’t get a 1 percent increase in pay and who also are working harder with less. That’s not to mention the Mainers who took pay cuts or who lost their jobs in 2009.
And despite what Galgay said, not a lot of Mainers are willing to pay more taxes, because they’re struggling to meet the current load.
According to a handout distributed at Tuesday’s reception, nearly 35 percent of Mainers live below or slightly over the poverty line and can not meet basic needs. That’s a fact. And increasing their sales tax is not the solution.
During the reception Galgay said several times that we cannot cut our way to prosperity and it’s time to look at increasing revenue instead of making cuts. We cannot tax ourselves to prosperity, either, or we’ll see that 35 percent poverty load increase.
Education is important, and unquestionably vital to the stability and success of our economy. We do, as MEA asserts, need to remain committed to our communities and our schools, but part of that commitment cannot be to hold education solely sacred at all cost.
Gov. John Baldacci has recommended cutting $15 million from education, but he’s up against MEA and its power to convince legislators — over buffet and beer — that it would be anti-education and anti-child to be budget-conscious.
MEA is a union of 25,000 members, with over 30 staffers, including general counsel and a lobbyist. And it has the means to set a $4,000 table at the civic center to win legislators’ votes against school cuts.