By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
Mayor of Lewiston
Once again Maine Municipalities take it on the chin from the Maine Legislature as it praises itself in balancing its budget. Yup! It matters not if it has been a Democratic Legislature or a Republican Legislature, the story is similar.
The governors and legislators do not want to raise taxes in their budgets, so as “excrements” roll downhill, it befalls on local municipalities to balance their budgets by eliminating positions and raising local property taxes in order to provide essential services, such as education and other public services.
We saw it in the Baldacci Administration and even more so in the LePage Administration by now adding the cutting of income taxes when the state needs revenue to balance its budget, taking it out on municipalities and public employees with furlough days and retirement pensions, especially from former teachers. When we need good teachers here in Maine, what incentive do we give them to want to work here when they can earn far more in other states?
My column last week was entitled, “What did 10 years of Bush tax cuts for the rich get us?” Apparently it struck a nerve with one reader from Auburn who wrote an e-mail to me. It read: “Larry, it is incredible how much of a far left tax-and-spend liberal you are. I like capitalism. I like less government. I think that if you raise taxes on oil companies that it is not much of an incentive to lower the price of gas. Companies don’t pay taxes, people buying products pay taxes. Can’t wait for you to be out of office so I don’t have to see your ‘Mayor’s Corner’ each week. It should be a column about city issues and not your ranting about more taxes and spending.” The email was signed “KCG.”
Well, Mr. G, I couldn’t disagree with you more! My ranting about the federal and state governments passing the buck onto municipalities and local property taxpayers has everything to do with the city: it is the city’s taxpayers who feel the impact, most especially our seniors on fixed incomes who cut their medicines in half and fear losing their homes after working hard throughout their lifetime. They don’t qualify for corporate welfare and they don’t get big bonuses for screwing up our economy. As a city mayor, these are the folks I care about.
Mr. G, in light of your disappointment in my writings, you have several options. Don’t read my column and instead watch Fox News for a steady diet of right-wing propaganda that has apparently influenced your thinking. I do appreciate hearing from you, as it is testament that I have more work to do. You could also read the rest of the right-leaning TCT articles.
Thankfully, the editor of this newspaper, a person I consider a friend despite of our differences in political philosophies on most subjects, allows me as a token liberal to write a column on a weekly basis to strike some sort of balance. Don’t get me wrong. This newspaper is much more than a political rag; it is a community newspaper providing a wonderful community service.
For some reason, by the end of the week, the TCT racks in grocery stores empty out by the time the new issue comes out. By the way, Mr. G, you and my constant nemesis are in the minority when criticizing my column. Almost daily, I have people telling me they look forward to reading my columns and that they agree with me. Some even say that is the only column they read.
Now onto the subject of this column. I serve on the Legislative Policy Committee of the Maine Municipal Association. As a city, we are members of this association, which lobbies the Maine Legislature for services to cities, such as training, insurance and legal services.
Geoff Herman of the MMA sent us a memorandum on June 14 about restructuring the state’s financial commitment to K-12 education in the proposed state budget, revenue sharing and General Assistance updates.
I share with you portions of Herman’s memorandum that makes the point of the headline to this column: “Changing the State’s Obligation to Finance K-12 Education. Although not a part of the budget as originally proposed by Governor LePage, the proposed budget now contains a new definition of the total cost of K-12 education. The new definition of that total cost includes the state’s payment of the teachers’ retirement premium, which is set at $173 million for the FY 2012 fiscal year.
“The effect of including the teacher retirement premium in the total cost of K-12 education is to significantly change the meaning of the state’s statutory obligation to provide 55% of that total cost.
“When the voters directed the state through a citizens’ initiative in 2004 to provide at least 55% of the total cost of K-12 education, that ‘total cost’ was specifically defined not to include the teacher retirement premium. By changing the rules now, the state will be effectively shaving 4 percentage points off its statutory financial obligation.”
In other words, what the citizens voted for in 2004 will be damned. Legislators are not listening. Some have, but apparently are in the minority.
The state previously split the cost of education with municipalities where the state was required to pay 55% and municipalities 45%. The change will now be the state at 49% and municipalities at 51%. Guess who makes up the difference? That’s right, the regressive local property tax and its municipal property taxpayers!
Hey, remember, the state had to give tax cuts, so municipalities have to now raise taxes in order to provide education to the next generation. Aren’t those state tax cuts great?
Herman reported that Governor LePage’s original proposed budget effectively eliminated the municipal revenue sharing program, which calls for the state to share 5% of state and income tax revenue to municipalities to reduce the overreliance on property taxes. Apparently Governor LePage quickly forgot that he was once a municipal mayor.
Well, guess what? This year’s budget and the budget in the last legislative session under a Democratic administration have both reduced municipal revenue sharing dollars by some 30%. That’s millions of dollars due to municipalities that are simply taken away. If you think our roads are bad while your property taxes are being raised, then this my friends is very much part of the reason.
Governor LePage’s budget included several changes to the General Assistance welfare program. The MMA’s Legislative Policy Committee opposed changes to the reimbursement formula as again it would have shifted the burden onto municipalities and other changes that would have allowed benefits to be provided just once a year and reduced for those who receive other federal benefits.
Believe me, this assistance provides for a merely poor existence with poor quality of life. Guess again, who would have had to shoulder the burden had these provisions passed? Yes, local property tax payers.
The MMA proposed some responsible changes that would have tightened up some provisions of the General Assistance law, but the legislature opted not to make changes. Thankfully, the Governor’s budget proposals weren’t adopted.
So, to Mr. G, when I rant about federal or state legislation that ultimately impacts residents of our local communities, I, in effect, am talking about “city issues.” Last week’s column and this week’s is a clear example when you consider the results of the federal and state actions.
As for not being able to wait until I am out of office, you simply have to put up with me for another six months—if you can’t wait that long, simply turn to Page 6 of this newspaper and keep on reading.
As for my ranting and raving, as a mayor representing a constituency, it is simply good therapy. Isn’t it great to live in such a wonderful democracy where one can express himself in a column, bully pulpit, Letter to the Editor or simply on a soap box? Thank God for our forefathers creating the First Amendment to our Constitution, the Freedom of Speech in its various forms.
Mr. G, I look forward to reading your Letter to the Editor on Page 3. Remember, it’s great therapy!
See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.