It may sound crazy, but it’s true: Even with one of the country’s most right-wing governors occupying the Blaine House, the state budget passed and amended by the Maine Legislature over the past two years is actually the most progressive in recent history.

The budget deals reached in the past two sessions raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, increase spending for health care and education and include almost none of the draconian cuts and property tax increases that Gov. LePage has championed. They represent a better deal for the average Mainer than any budget since the beginning of the recession, including those under Gov. Baldacci.

This laudable outcome is partly, and unintentionally, a result of the actions of Gov. LePage.

REVENUE SHARING BLUNDER

In 2013, when LePage submitted his budget proposal to the Legislature, it included increases in property taxes (through cuts to the circuit breaker program and homestead exemption) and a massive cut in revenue sharing to Maine municipalities, which would have to be made up through local property tax hikes as well as cuts to education and local services.

This was seen as a tactical blunder – raising regressive property taxes isn’t exactly popular – but LePage really didn’t have much choice. He’d already cut state programs to the bone the year before (including cuts to MaineCare that saw tens of thousands lose coverage), and the bill for his income and estate tax cuts (which disproportionately benefit the wealthy) was about to come due.

This tacit admission by LePage – that there was no so-called “wasteful spending” left to be cut – allowed Appropriations Committee members from both parties room to work together to find real alternatives.

With Democrats advocating repealing the LePage tax cuts and LePage advocating axing revenue sharing, these legislators were able to find common ground on, instead, raising certain sales taxes thought to be more likely to be paid by out-of-state visitors.

It wasn’t as progressive a solution as Democrats had hoped for or as punitive as LePage had proposed, but it ended up being acceptable to both sides.

BIG KEY: CAP ON DEDUCTIONS

The budget they eventually agreed on also increased education funding, protected the Drugs for the Elderly program, restored lost funding to Head Start and provided state workers their first increase in compensation in five years.

One piece of the deal, almost overlooked at the time, was a cap on tax deductions for high-income Mainers at $27,500.

This change, actually first put forward by the LePage administration, raised more from the wealthiest Mainers than repealing the income tax cuts would have – an average of about $1,483 for every member of the top 1 percent. It effectively closed loopholes across the board and put Maine at the forefront of progressive tax policy. One wonders if LePage was aware of its full implications when his staff proposed it.

LePage would eventually veto the budget compromise because, he said, it contained tax increases (as if his original plan didn’t), but was overridden by bipartisan majorities in both chambers.

During the 2014 session, LePage again made a big contribution to effective, bipartisan government, this time by taking himself out of the process completely. Breaking with the way Maine government has worked for as far back as anyone can remember, LePage refused to submit a supplemental budget for the new session.

LEPAGE OUT OF PICTURE

In LePage’s absence, Democratic leaders pulled off one of the session’s biggest political coups. They put through a bill to completely remove what remained of LePage’s revenue-sharing cuts in the budget, replacing them with unallocated revenue from various accounts, including the state’s rainy day fund. Forced to vote up or down on LePage’s major, controversial budget priority, Republicans caved and voted against the governor.

After that debate was decided, the rest of the budgetary process this year went relatively smoothly and was mostly concerned with finding other sources of revenue to fix various issues, including improvements to the targeting of the deduction cap, increases to property tax credits for low-income Mainers and funding for one of the health care waiting lists.

Some revenue was found as a result of a commission that, for the first time, examined many of the state’s corporate tax giveaways. They recommended eliminating a number of loopholes, and a couple of their recommendations made it into the final package.

Last week, the changes were given final approval by large bipartisan majorities over the objections of Gov. LePage. The end result is a fairer, more humane budget than anyone two years ago would have imagined.

Perhaps Gov. LePage should stay home more often.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping