Maine lawmakers are considering a bill that would undo a LePage-era budgeting change that shifted millions in teacher retirement costs to local districts.

At a public hearing Wednesday in Augusta, Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford, said the state paid those costs for 70 years before Gov. Paul LePage shifted the financial burden to districts in the 2013 biennium budget.

Those costs, known as normal teacher retirement costs, have increased from $29 million the first year to $38 million in 2016-17, and are projected to increase to $46 million in 2017-18, a 58 percent increase. The costs are passed on to the school districts as part of the state funding formula. In turn, districts have had to adjust their budgets and pass on the additional costs to local taxpayers.

“Property owners are being crushed,” Stearns told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. The Maine School Management Association said it supported the bill.

Maine Department of Education Acting Deputy Commissioner Suzan Beaudoin said the DOE opposed the bill, arguing that teachers are employees of the district and the retirement costs should be considered an employee benefit.

A committee member asked Beaudoin if the state would consider taking those retirement costs back if there were a statewide teachers contract, something LePage has said he wants to implement. Beaudoin said that cost, along with all benefits, would have to be considered as part of that negotiation.

The Maine School Management Association said retirement costs have increased in recent years for several reasons, according to a response from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. Teacher employment patters are shifting, and the costs increase because retirees have a longer life span, decreased teacher turnover, more teachers staying long enough to be vested, and teachers retiring at an older age. In addition, investment earnings are sluggish.

The committee will take up the bill for discussion in a work session.

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