Gov. Paul LePage and his administration are taking issue with the wording of a proposed ballot question designed to provide additional funding for local schools. They claim voters might be misled by the current wording and they want it changed.
Based on the language in the citizen initiative, the secretary of state has proposed that the question on the ballot read as follows: “Do you want to establish a fund to support kindergarten through 12th grade public education by adding a three percent surcharge on Maine taxable income above $200,000?”
But in comments filed with the secretary of state’s office, the LePage administration is arguing that the word tax or surtax should be used instead. Surcharge, they say, is too vague a term.
“If you look at the proposal itself, the primary question and the initiative itself is a tax increase, that is really is the proposal that is being put before the public,” says Richard Rosen, state finance commissioner.
Rosen says using the term “tax increase” is consistent with previous referenda that also raised revenue in some form.
But John Kosinski, campaign manager for Stand Up for Students, the political action committee supporting passage of the referendum, is baffled by the administration’s position.
“This might be a distinction without a difference. But in some ways I can’t help but feel that there is an effort here to try and confuse voters,” he says. “Keep in mind that over the past six years this administration has pushed tax cuts again and again that largely benefit the wealthiest Mainers.”
Kosinski says the question as proposed by the secretary of state clearly indicates a vote for the measure is a vote for a tax increase whether the word tax is explicitly used or not. He thinks the ballot question wording is just fine the way it is.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says the comments by the governor and others will be considered in a complex process that tries to make all ballot questions as simple and understandable as possible. Part of that process is to apply what’s known as the Flesch–Kincaid readability test to the wording.
“It’s a logarithm that you can run a question through and it will tell you what grade level reading it is, and that is very helpful to us,” he says.
But because of the complexity of many citizen-initiated ballot issues, Dunlap says the ballot question itself can never fully reflect all that is in the proposed legislation.
“Capturing every aspect of a referendum initiative is virtually impossible. Some stuff is going to be left out because you can’t succinctly put that in to a question that is at all readable to the voter,” he says.
Dunlap has until the end of next week to make a final decision on the wording. Once that happens there are no administrative appeals.
If someone still wants a change, it’s a matter of going to court and proving to a judge that there is a better alternative.