Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Wishing you all a healthy and prosperous new year as your legislature gears up for another season, I want to recap some of the successes and disappointments of the last session and also to share my goals for the upcoming one.
Successes of the last session
While surely there was something in the result for everyone to dislike, successfully negotiating a bipartisan state budget and passing it with supermajority over the Governor’s veto certainly was the legislature’s most important accomplishment.
Specifically, in the budget I was proud of successfully advocating for an increase in state school funding of approximately $58 million, partially restoring some of costs of education that the state regularly has shifted to local municipalities since 2008.
Secondarily, and also representing a hard-won compromise, the omnibus energy bill on balance was a productive effort towards major gains in energy conservation and efficiency — even though Maine’s ocean wind power development became a casualty in overriding the Governor’s veto.
It also was gratifying finally to complete repaying the debt owed to Maine hospitals even though we were unable to take care of the other side of the hospitals’ liabilities by reducing their exposure to uncompensated medical care and extending federally-funded health insurance to 70,000 uninsured Mainers.
Failures of bipartisanship
After the legislature reached essential coherence around the biennial budget, it was disappointing to see the body retreat back into the disarray of partisan self-interest following the Governor’s unprecedented 82 vetoes. It was especially disappointing to see the legislature betray volumes of hard bipartisan work by finding the necessary two-thirds votes to override on only five of the Governor’s 27 vetoes of unanimous Committee reports.
More disappointment stemmed from our inability to better temper the cuts in municipal revenue sharing and the consequent burden in increased property taxes. The legislature further aggravated the regressive pain by failing to support property tax relief through the “circuit-breaker” income tax credit program.
Two other education-related bills on which I worked diligently also foundered on the legislative rocks of partisan suspicion.
A stakeholders’ group had met to work on this rule for nearly a year without reaching consensus on the extent which measures of ‘student achievement’ appropriately should constitute measures of ‘teacher effectiveness.’ Anxiety surrounds this issue not only for teachers (whose compensation and continuing employment is to be statutorily linked to this effectiveness rating) but also for school policy people (who fear that creating incentives to raise a narrow set of standardized test scores will result in blighted overall student learning and a distortion of educational mission at a time when Maine is attempting to broaden learning through collaborative teaching).
At the same time, to many educators it seems appropriate to evaluate teacher effectiveness liberally in relation to student learning rather than just against standard proxy measures of professional “teacher-like” behavior.
This bill, LD 1542, put our committee in unusual disarray with a majority report (favored by most committee Democrats) that proposed to set a ceiling for measures of student learning at 20% of a teacher’s effectiveness rating and a minority report (favored by committee Republicans) which sought to set 25% as a minimum floor.
Although I was unable to persuade any committee members to join me, I sought a middle way by offering a third amendment which would have limited the employment of standardized test scores but also allowed local school districts, in consensus with their local teachers’ associations, to define their own measures of student learning and growth without limit in rule. Some on both sides objected to this approach, holding that extending such latitude came at the expense of statewide consistency.
With the bill worked late and coming to a vote in the heat and untidiness of the final day of the session, the majority report failed to receive sufficient votes for emergency passage and the bill died, a frustrating but predictable outcome.
Charter school funding was the other issue that came to unfortunate grief on the shoals of partisan mistrust.
LD 1057: An Act Related to Funding of Charter Schools would have offered charter schools funding comparable to local community public schools as calculated through the state’s overall school funding formula but would have had the state directly pay the full load as it currently does with the Maine School of Science and Mathematics magnet school in Limestone. WIth charter school funding essentially taken off the top of state educational funding, this would effectively spread the expense of charter schools across all Maine public schools rather than have the costs deducted from the operating budgets of local school districts in which individual charter students reside. This seems generally fair as it is the state that is approving these new schools, not the local school districts and their taxpayers.
However, while there was bipartisan agreement about the concept of state funding, partisan disagreement arose over whether the state spending on charter schools warranted discrete itemization as a miscellaneous cost within the state budget. In the end, the Governor vetoed the bill in order to avoid subjecting charter school funding to any portion of the public scrutiny that public schools endure.
I spent a full week trying to persuade charter school stakeholders and the Governor’s senior policy advisors that this bill was in everyone’s best interest but, despite a final effort from the House floor, the legislature sustained the Governor’s veto.
Priorities in the legislative session ahead
The mixed success of the last session left many of us on both sides reflecting on the frustrations of the effective stalemate between the Governor and the legislature. With an election year ahead, partisan polarization is likely to threaten even well-considered policy work. But I remain committed toward keeping the conversation open with my colleagues in order to realize some progress in areas in which I believe we truly share common interests that can benefit the state.
Budget and school funding
Above all else, I hope to assist in stewarding a responsible supplemental budget. Conventionally, the Governor would offer this supplemental adjustment to the biennial budget in order to align with updated state revenue figures. But, so far, Governor LePage is declining to do this. Even so, I am confident that the legislature will approach this responsibility to the state collectively in good faith.
Related to the bigger budget picture, the last legislature commissioned an independent study of educational funding in Maine. From the review, we have learned that, compared with other states, Maine provides a relatively equitable distribution of school funds but that the overall level of funding remains inadequate to meet our established learning goals.
Specifically the report makes the case for expanded early learning through universal voluntary pre-kindergarten. The report also suggests that Maine’s funding model shortchanges professional development for teachers at a time when we have accelerated critical expectations for student learning. Last, there is reason to believe that Maine’s current funding model could better represent the necessary allocation of supplementary resources to economically disadvantaged students across the state.
In that light, we also have confirming evidence that the localized hardships created by over-reliance on property taxes to support schools is more efficiently remedied through direct income-based property tax relief, rather than by tinkering crudely on a district level with alterations to Maine’s school funding formula.
Because of this, I am co-sponsoring with Speaker Eves a bill comprehensively restoring the circuit breaker program and, with others, I hope to renew the state’s commitment to municipal revenue sharing to counter the shift from state to local taxation.
I also hope to revisit the concept of state funding for charter schools in order to replace financial burden and relieve antagonism from local public community school districts.
I hope also to work with a few others toward implementing a state virtual learning collaborative which would allow public school students, under the guidance of local teachers, to have expanded access to courses shared between school districts.
I am also shepherding a bill carried over by Appropriations which would remove the unfunded actuarial liability for teachers’ retirement from the state’s calculation of the present cost of education. This figure is much more the result of previous legislative decisions on how to finance state government and has no relation to the normal costs of teacher retirement and therefore is used inappropriately to represent the state’s contribution towards the current costs of schools.
With Senator Langley, I am co-sponsoring a bill to more equitably allocate the normal retirement costs of teachers at the private town academies. Under current law these retirement costs are unfairly borne entirely by public funds.
Teacher evaluations and educational policy
Having worked over the interim as a school board member with MDI’s steering committee on teacher evaluations, I intend to keep protect space in the state’s rulemaking to ensure that local concerns are heard and that similar legitimate local efforts to develop evaluations systems are honored.
With Senator Katz, I am cosponsoring an important resolve to study the funding of post-secondary public education modeled on Oregon’s ‘Pay Forward, Pay Back’ program.
Energy, climate, and environment
With Senator Vitelli, I am cosponsoring a bill encouraging solar energy development.
WIth Representative Devin, I am cosponsoring a resolve to study the ocean acidification and Its effects on commercial shellfish.
With Representative McClellan, I am cosponsoring a bill to mitigate against invasive milfoil in Maine lakes and, with Senator Saviello, I am cosponsoring a bill that accelerates the product stewardship program for safe disposal of paint.
Healthcare and medical services
My bill to allow more seamless and efficient continuity of medical home care at facilities like Birch Bay Village operated by hospitals has been carried over by the Health and Human Services Committee in order to ensure adequate quality and oversight of these services.
In addition, I will be supporting Speaker Eves’ continuing effort to expand medical coverage under the MaineCare program to adults who qualify under federal law with incomes up to 133% of the income poverty line and qualify Maine to receive federal funding for 100% of the cost of coverage.
Biotechnology and marine research and development
With Speaker Eves, I am cosponsoring a bond to develop infrastructure to support Maine’s marine and biotechnology sectors and, with Senator Jackson, I am cosponsoring a bond proposal to develop Maine’s lobster processing capacity.
I am grateful to all of you for your continued trust in me as your representative. As always, I remain eager to hear your thoughts and concerns regarding these policy issues and others facing our state.