A pair of bills under consideration in the Legislature would exempt school budgets from requiring local voter approval.
In this April 19, 2016, file photo, a Patten resident casts a vote during a local nonbinding referendum. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

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Jacob Posik is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute, a free-market think tank in Portland.

A pair of legislative bills, which have so far flown under the radar, may be the most destructive proposals of the 131st Maine Legislature. 

LD 1748, sponsored by Rep. Mana Abdi, D-Lewiston, and LD 1370, sponsored by Rep. Ann-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, would both turn the school budget validation process on its head. 

LD 1748 would scrap the school budget validation process employed by towns each year for a new system that requires residents to collect signatures to force a vote on school budgets. Under the bill, signatures equal to 20 percent of the votes cast for governor in that town during the last gubernatorial election must be collected for a school budget validation vote to occur.

LD 1370 would establish an opt-in system, meaning a town would have to hold a referendum vote and affirm their desire to approve future school budgets for these elections to continue.

Either bill, if enacted, would likely lead to runaway municipal spending while stripping property taxpayers of their voice in school budgets. 

Eliminating the school budget votes that occur today by default “strengthens Maine’s democracy,” according to Abdi. It seems odd to suggest that eliminating a democratic process could be beneficial to democracy. 

The mental gymnastics necessary to reach this conclusion are mind boggling. Under this logic, Maine should stop reelecting lawmakers and the governor every two or four years unless Mainers “opt-in” to future elections or collect enough signatures to force one. That sounds democratic, right? 

Anyone who pays property taxes or reads the newspaper should see how potentially catastrophic these proposals could be. 

See this recent Portland Press Herald headline: “Maine cities, towns face historic tax increases as costs rise relentlessly.” Across Maine, school budgets continue to increase despite sizable drops in enrollment and student performance. Since the largest driver of municipal spending is education, when school budgets increase, so do your property taxes. 

In Gorham, the proposed school budget would increase property taxes by a staggering 19.5 percent. Westbrook’s school budget would raise property taxes by 16.4 percent. In Brunswick, a 7 percent increase in the school budget would result in a property tax hike of a more modest — but still significant — 5 percent

This is the story in town after town across Maine. While everyday Mainers feel the pinch amid persistent inflation and economic uncertainty, local governments show little fiscal restraint and ask residents to pay more in property taxes each year. It’s simply unsustainable. 

But these troubling figures beg two questions: What would the property tax increases look like if school budgets weren’t subject to voter approval? And what on earth makes anyone think taking away this basic standard of oversight from taxpayers is a good idea? 

I believe LD 1748 and LD 1370 reek of elitism. The school boards, superintendents and teachers’ union may love nothing more than to set the school budget in a town without voter scrutiny and make taxpayers foot the bill for whatever they claim is needed. They’re the experts after all, right? What do taxpayers know about setting school budgets anyway? 

If a community trusts its officials to make these decisions without their approval, there’s already a process within law that allows a town to forgo the budget validation vote for three years. Thus, the current system works well and exactly as intended. No changes are needed to the system — especially none that eliminate local oversight and accountability. 

The Maine Legislature’s education committee should quickly send LDs 1748 and 1370 to the dustbin of history. No good will come from eliminating the voice of taxpayers in municipal spending.