AUGUSTA – Lawmakers on the Taxation Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a proposal that may give state government the power to collect property taxes, but with only a hollow concept draft to consider, it’s unclear what the bill would do.
Democrats say the concept bill, L.D. 369, would provide funding equality between schools in poor and wealthy areas. But Republicans see the bill as a throwback to the failed statewide property tax bill that Maine voters repealed in the 1970s.
“This bill is a phantom bill, it’s just a title and sentence. And yet we’re having a hearing on it,” said Mary Adams of Garland, the lone citizen who testified against the bill.
Adams is the chair of Maine’s center-right coalition and a longtime crusader for fiscally responsible government. She fought against the statewide property tax in the 1970s, leading a petition effort which resulted in the repeal of the tax on Dec. 5, 1977. She recalled the turmoil the tax caused in Maine cities and towns, and said reviving the long-defeated tax would be a terrible idea.
Adams urged the committee to hold a public hearing on the bill once it was actually written – something Taxation Committee co-chair Sen. Anne Haskell (D-Cumberland) said may or may not happen.
“I hope there is a committee hearing, because there is nothing here,” said Adams. “It would be a disservice to the people of Maine if they did not have the chance to speak about the bill once they know what’s in it.”
“It sounds very much like you’re considering a statewide property tax like what was in the School Finance Act of 1973,” she said.
Haskell would neither confirm nor deny that L.D. 369 is an attempt at enacting a statewide property tax and declined to answer Adams’ questions on the matter. (Those testifying at committee hearings are typically not allowed to ask questions of lawmakers.)
L.D. 369 is sponsored by Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln) and co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland), Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland), Rep. Walter Kumiega III (D-Deer Isle), and Rep. W. Bruce MacDonald (D-Boothbay).
Johnson first introduced his bill to the Legislature’s Education Committee in April. At the time, his testimony emphasized the need to bring about an education funding model similar to that of Vermont.
“We must redesign the way Maine raises revenues necessary to fund the costs of providing a good education,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s reference to Vermont’s education funding model largely confirms Adams’ suspicion. Since 1997, Vermont has assumed sole responsibility for funding local education via a statewide tax on property.
“Act 60 of 1997 (subsequently amended by Act 68 of 2003) vested the state with sole responsibility for funding education, instituted a new state property tax system, and created the Education Fund. All tax revenue to support public education in Vermont, except for some federal funds, is raised through state taxes,” according to VTTransparency.org.
Adams concluded her testimony with strong warning: “Whatever you do: stay away from the state-mandated property tax, because if you do pass it, you’ll have me on your doorstep. And if I die, my husband has promised to have me stuffed and put in the Hall of Flags to make sure that it never comes back again.”