Intentionally Unreasonable: A Question (2) of pitchforks, not education

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With so much attention focused on the bizarre and baffling presidential election this year, newspapers lack the ink, television stations the bandwidth, or digital media the bits and bytes, to cover much beyond the daily hysteria caused by Mr. Orange Face and his gruesome assault upon our democracy.

But on Nov. 8, when our long Trump nightmare finally ends, various local, county, and state elections will determine thousands of major ballot issues that deserve our full attention.

One such ballot initiative in Maine is Question 2: “Do you want to add a 3 percent tax on individual Maine taxable income above $200,000 to create a state fund that would provide direct support for student learning in kindergarten through 12th grade public education?”

The rationale and logic-based answer from our collective electorate to this misleading question should be an emphatic “no.”

Sadly, though, we’re trapped in a misinformed twilight zone of political engagement, where critical thinking is secondary to emotional reflex. If current polling projections are accurate, Mainers will awake on Nov. 9 to the landslide passage of Question 2.

To be clear, that will be a sad day for all citizens of Maine, not just those who earn north of $200,000 a year.

Let’s start by renaming Question 2 to more accurately reflect its core political DNA and voter appeal: “Pitchfork 1.”

For background, in 2014, a self-described 1-percenter named Nick Hanauer, who made his multi-billion-dollar fortune during the tech boom, wrote an article titled “The Pitchforks Are Coming …”

The general theme of Hanauer’s thoughtful piece was that extreme wealth disparity in the U.S. was neither healthy nor sustainable for our society.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when,” Hanauer wrote.

Here in Maine, Question 2, if passed, will represent a clear and present sign that the pitchforks of political discontent are here and on the move.

As the question is framed, how could the approximately 97 percent of Mainers who earn less than $200,000 per year not vote for a tax that doesn’t apply to them? What insights will those voters invoke on Nov. 8 if not the base emotion of “Why not? It doesn’t apply to me.”

Most reasonable people would agree that wealthy individuals and high-income earners should pay more tax than others.

Most reasonable people would agree that Maine and our local municipalities should recognize that budget support for educational excellence is of the highest priorities.

Most reasonable people would agree that Maine’s state budgeting process is a massive and complex undertaking that requires hard choices and smart policy-making from our legislative leaders.

The problem with Question 2 is that it’s in conflict with all of the above.

Maine already has among the highest tax burdens, forcing many businesses to leave the state and creating a virtual tax-relief shuttle between here and Florida. Passing Question 2 will raise the financial hurdle for many businesses and force many individuals to move.

The formula for calculating educational funding from the new Question 2 tax won’t go to the towns and cities that need the money the most. Instead it will mostly favor wealthier school districts.

This ballot referendum is not about education. It’s not about Maine’s children. It’s about the state teacher’s union, the Maine Education Association, using the ballot mechanism to fund additional “teachers” by mandate – instead of much-needed infrastructure. The projected tax windfall of $157 million will go primarily to current and new teachers.

The national teacher’s union and state teacher’s union have donated more than $1.3 million to get Question 2 passed. Since both organizations are in the business of advocating and promoting the interests of their members, I support their efforts right up to the point where those interests harm our state through awful public policy, also known as Question 2.

What if next year some “Geriatric Health-Care Organization” launches a “Protect Our Older Citizens” referendum campaign, proposing an extra 5 percent state income tax on people who make more than $300,000, with those funds directed to assisted-living facilities?

To allow the private self-interests of a business enterprise to create new and impactful tax policy through a referendum process is wrong.

Our current budget crisis in Maine is not a function of high-income earners not paying their “fair share,” but instead the result of a systemic and hapless fiscal policy set over many years by our well-intentioned, yet economically clueless, Legislature.

With Maine’s aging population spread out over 35,000 square miles, and a massive crumbling infrastructure interconnecting 500 disparate municipalities, we’re hopelessly inefficient on a breathtaking scale. Too few people (1.3 million) and too much space/infrastructure is a fundamental issue of physics – not economics or political science.

The biggest lie often told to Maine voters during an election cycle is that our many challenges might be solved through some magical combination of voodoo budget math and the awesome power of positive political thinking. “Vote for me and I’ll create new jobs, lower taxes, and give a rainbow colored unicorn to every family in Maine.”

But Maine will never effectively compete in the realm of new-economy prosperity until we release our death grip on old-economy thinking and our parochial aversion to change. Our elected leaders must wake up and craft legislation in harmony with a new future, where we must learn to worship at the altar of the twin gods of the new economy: density and efficiency.

Once we begin to embrace facts and not fearful avoidance as our political and fiscal operating system, tough legislative decisions can be made – decisions that will reverse our current negative trends of taxation, population, educational standards, etc.

The better answer has nothing to do with Question 2 and everything to do with Maine looking toward meaningful long-term solutions – not pitchfork short-cuts.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard Saturdays at 11 a.m. on WLOB 1310 AM and 100.5 FM.

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