AUGUSTA (AP) – Supporters of a citizen initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot to increase state school subsidies said Tuesday that the Legislature can’t be counted on to do the job unless their proposal passes.

A Portland consultant for Question 1A said elected state officials have a record of failing to make good on a commitment to increase state school subsidies to 55 percent, and that will likely continue if the competing 1B proposal passes.

“Despite promises by state leaders to (reach) the funding target six years from now, there is very little in the state’s history to suggest that these policy makers will be able to make good on that commitment,” John O’Dea said as he released a report supporting his claims.

O’Dea was a state senator when the Legislature expressed its “intent” to pay the 55 percent subsidy in 1985. Since that time, he said, $1.8 billion in public school expenses have shifted from broader-based state taxes to property taxes, O’Dea said.

Sue Bell, who was also a lawmaker and Appropriations Committee member when the 55 percent law was enacted, took issue with O’Dea’s claim. Bell said the 55 percent reflected legislative intent and not a commitment. But if 1B passes, Bell believes the Legislature will see the subsidy in a new light.

“I think there is the political will there to make good on that commitment,” said Bell, a field coordinator for the 1B campaign who previously was an adviser to former Gov. Angus King.

O’Dea’s report was released by Citizens to Reduce Local Property Taxes Statewide, which supports the 1A proposal to increase the state subsidy for public schools from about 43 percent to 55 percent.

The group, whose campaign is supported by the Maine Municipal Association and Maine Education Association, said its proposal could result in 15 percent breaks on the average property tax bill.

Question 1B, the competing question advanced by the Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci, seeks to spread the increased subsidy over five years, while broadening existing property tax relief programs.

A third option on the Nov. 4 ballot is 1C, neither of the above.

O’Dea’s report maintains that 1B, as it is structured, will not provide substantive tax relief.

It says the 1B proposal will reduce state aid to 246 Maine municipalities in fiscal 2005, and to 96 more in 2006. Those communities include Portland, whose school funding woes are well-known in the State House.

“There’s not a lot of sympathy for municipalities” in the State House, said O’Dea.

The Baldacci administration said the 246 communities comprise 137 school administrative units. The state’s school funding formula that takes into account valuations and student enrollments leaves financial winners and losers, but the 1B proposal is not causing those changes, the administration said.

Question 1B supporters say the state can’t afford a sudden increase in school subsidies, which would cost nearly $250 million the state does not have. Advocates for social programs that fear budget cuts that could result from 1A’s passage have endorsed the 1B alternative.


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