Democrats say GOP newsletters misstate education funding

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AUGUSTA — In otherwise-mundane newsletters to constituents, at least four Republican state senators used the same wording to make a claim about education spending that Democrats say is not true.

Each of the four wrote in his or her taxpayer-funded mailing, “We made the largest one-time investment in education in the state’s history, putting the state’s share of funding for local public schools at 55 percent, a threshold that had eluded lawmakers for decades.”

Nobody disputes that the state’s school funding level has not yet hit 55 percent — it is somewhere between 49 and 53 percent, depending on how it is counted — but there was a period when some lawmakers thought they would set aside enough to reach the 55 percent target in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

It turns out, though, they will not, for a variety of complicated reasons.

For Democrats, that makes the claim by Amy Volk of Scarborough, Scott Cyrway of Benton, David Woodsome of Waterboro and Dana Dow of Waldoboro dishonest.

Republicans see it differently.

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James Cyr, communications director for Republicans in the Senate President’s Office, said the reality is “we are funding public education at unprecedented levels, which is fantastic.”

“There have always been competing views” of what is necessary to reach the 55 percent requirement set by voters in a 2004 referendum, he said.

“Bickering back and forth over whether it’s currently 55 percent versus 53 (percent) misses the point,” Cyr said.

For BJ McCollister, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, the accuracy of the 55 percent figure is very much the point.

“One thing is abundantly clear: Sens. Volk, Cyrway and Dow voted to cut taxes for the rich and underfund our schools, and now, with nine weeks until the election, they are using taxpayer dollars to lie to voters,” McCollister said.

Cyrway said he would never call someone a liar and does not think it is warranted.

“It’s all a viewpoint,” he said, adding that lawmakers from both sides compromised on education-funding levels, and that when they were first adopted, it appeared the 55 percent target was going to be reached.

The bottom line in the state budget is that the level of local education aid, not counting teacher retirement contributions, is at 49 percent of the total cost.

Add in the retirement cash and it reaches 53 percent — about $43 million shy of the target the GOP lawmakers needed to reach the 55 percent requirement they said they met.

Cyr said the Legislature “did, indeed, reach the 55 percent threshold after making the largest one-time increase in public education funding in state history.”

“As is the case with so many budgetary issues, however, education funding is often a moving target and dependent on numerous other factors,” Cyr added.

The figure has been a target since Maine voters approved a 2004 referendum directing the state to pay 55 percent of local school costs.

Officials nudged school spending toward the goal at first, but once the recession of 2008 roared in, they have fallen well short, partly because they cannot agree on how to secure the necessary cash to reach the target.

Voters in 2016 approved a 3 percent surcharge on annual household incomes over $200,000 to raise the additional revenue needed for the state to reach the mandate that the state cover 55 percent of K-12 education in Maine.

But legislators, led by Gov. Paul LePage, killed the surcharge in 2017, and, instead, added additional education funding from other sources. But not enough to hit the 55 percent level.

The referendum in 2004 specifically excluded teacher retirement payments from counting toward the 55 percent that voters approved.

As state lawmakers sought to deal with the recession that clobbered Maine starting in 2008, they passed a statute that said beginning in 2011, the state would count toward the 55 percent target figure “the cost of the essential programs and services” for K-12 education as well as contributions to teacher retirement, retired teachers’ health insurance and retired teachers’ life insurance.

That law remains on the books.

Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said that during the 2017 budget negotiations, which briefly led to a state government shutdown, the Democrats were pushing for $320 million extra for education to put the state at the 55 percent level without relying on teacher retirement contributions.

But the House GOP wanted to put nothing extra in, he said, and Senate Republicans were ready to accept $75 million in additional funding, which would have left the overall level at less than 50 percent.

In the end, both sides settled for about $162 million more in school spending, officials said, which Libby said was never enough to fulfill the 55 percent requirement.

“We were not able to hold the line,” Libby said. But, he said, Democrats managed to put the state much closer to the goal than Republicans wanted.

Cyrway said that in the end, “everyone was content” and the state did not impose a surcharge he thought would wipe out jobs and slash business interest in Maine.

Once lawmakers agreed on a spending plan, the budget, counting teacher retirement money, wound up about $80 million short of the 55 percent target in the current fiscal year. The one for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, falls $43 million short of the goal.

Cyr said when GOP senators first approached the two-year budget in 2017, they put forward enough funding to meet the 55 percent target for the first time ever, and still believed they were on track when the Department of Education detailed requested 2019 funding in January.

Since then, however, legislators added funding for career and technical education that caused the state to miss the target.

“While this resulted in missing the 55 percent mark” for the coming fiscal year, Cyr said, “it was an attempt to increase the numbers of students” getting training, a way to help with a statewide worker shortage.

McCollister scoffed at the GOP’s rationale in light of the “55 percent” statement in the newsletters.

“Every claim they’re making is false,” he said, insisting that by their own admission, they never met the 55 percent goal they claim to have reached in the newsletters they mailed out to constituents.

Cyr said GOP senators expect to maintain “this historic level of public education funding” in the future.

But, he said, “it’s also important to recognize that education funding targets are often elusive, complex and subject to frequent adjustments.”

Senators are allowed to send out a single newsletter each year at the taxpayers’ expense. The newsletters go to every resident of a senator’s district, and are supposed to be nonpartisan.

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This recent newsletter from state Sen. Dana Dow is similar to others by at least three GOP state senators that claim they succeeded in reaching the 55 percent goal for state funding of education, an assertion Democrats say is untrue. The Republican senators say they managed to achieve the long-sought target, but the situation changed before the budget year actually got underway, so spending now falls short.

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