Schools would be in the driver’s seat for determining property taxes under a proposal from Rep. Mana Abdi (D-Lewiston) that would re-work how municipalities approve school budgets.
If Abdi’s bill, LD 1748, were to pass, then school districts would be able to avoid getting local voter approval on budgets through voter referenda unless certain petition requirements were met.
Under current Maine law, school administrative units, regional school units, and community schools must submit to a budget validation referendum process. Although voters can opt to suspend the requirement for a period of time, residents of a district are typically asked to approve or reject school spending on a regular basis.
The requirement gives voters an opportunity to accept or reject school spending increases, which can involve hefty increases in property tax assessments.
Abdi wants to make it easier for schools to circumvent the budget validation requirement.
Under Abdi’s proposal, residents who wanted the school budget to be subjected to a vote of the citizenry would have to collect petition signatures equal to 20 percent of the total number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election.
In other words, school budgets wouldn’t have to be approved by voters as a matter of routine. Instead, budgets would only go for a vote after some residents took the additional step of collecting petition signatures.
According to the Maine Policy Institute, the consequences of such a law would be severe for property taxpayers. (Disclosure: The Maine Wire is a project of the Maine Policy Institute.)
In an email to its supporters, MPI said Abdi’s bill could increase property taxes by as much as 35.4 ( a number that was later revised down subsequently to a more reasonable 19.5) percent in Gorham, 16.4 percent in Westbrook, and 7.5 percent in Brunswick, based on recent budget requests produced by school officials.
That because if a school board approved a steep budget increase, property taxes would necessarily have to increase in order to meet the new demand for funding.
In her testimony supporting the proposal Tuesday, Abdi said it was a “niche” and “wonky” issue but “one that would strengthen Maine’s democracy while saving taxpayer money.”
Abdi said that very few people turn out to vote in school budget referenda in Lewiston. Therefore, allowing elected school board officials to make budget decisions without subjecting those decisions to voter approval is more democratic than allowing everyone to vote on the budget itself.
She said the current referendum process “undermines the authority of elected school boards and wastes taxpayer money administering pointless elections very few people bother to participate in.”