March 26, 2013

Bill to sell Blaine House receives bipartisan scorn, rejection

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A Portland representative’s proposal to sell the house Gov. Paul LePage lives in to help pay for a tax-cut package the governor championed in 2011 was voted down – unanimously and quickly – by a legislative committee Monday.

The bill proposed by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, would have authorized the state finance commissioner to sell the Blaine House and put the proceeds toward the General Fund. Lawmakers at a meeting of the State and Local Government Committee on Monday denounced the bill as a hyper-political stunt that would jeopardize one of Maine’s most historic buildings.

“It’s things like this that divide us,” said Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, a committee member. “To spend an ounce of energies on something that is divisive (and) isn’t going to achieve anything for people around their dinner table, I think, is an affront to why people put us in these positions.”

“The sale of the Blaine House, while perhaps symbolically satisfying for some in these times of a deeply divided politic, would be most disturbing,” said Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, in testimony.

He said that’s mostly because in 1919, the house was given to the state by Harriet Blaine Beale, the daughter of James Blaine, a former Maine congressman, U.S. secretary of state and presidential runner-up, in memory of her son, who died in World War I.

“To simply offer for sale this historic residence to monetize this monument would be an insult and breach of trust with Harriet Beale,” Jones said.

Selling the Blaine House, just across the street from the State House, likely wouldn’t make much of a dent in the tax cut package Russell opposes, estimated at a $400 million impact in the next two-year budget cycle.

The city of Augusta has assessed the house, outbuildings and 2.4 acre lot at a value of $1,267,300. While the 10-room, four-bathroom house, boasting 10,600 feet of living space, could go for more on the open market, committee members questioned whether the sale would be legal.

Russell, who said she was sick at home Monday, said in a telephone interview that she appreciates the house’s history, and the bill wasn’t a “political ploy.” She did, however, take aim at LePage.

“Mainers should be climbing into the middle class and not falling out of it, and the person who currently resides there laughs at them,” she said, criticizing the tax-cut package she said is “for the rich.”

Republicans dispute that the cuts were “for the rich” and quickly point out many Democrats criticizing the tax cuts actually voted for the budget they were contained in.

State data published in the Press Herald last summer said income tax cuts passed in 2011 eliminated approximately 70,000 of the lowest-income Mainers from the tax rolls, though other changes included raising the estate-tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million.

On income taxes specifically, Maine’s top rate was cut, but the top 10 percent of earners shoulder more of the state’s overall tax burden after the change than they did before.

“Rather than wasting their time targeting one man, supporters of this bill should join the governor’s efforts to help all the people of Maine by lowering energy costs, improving education for our children and creating a better business climate that would provide good-paying jobs and economic opportunities for all Mainers,” said Peter Steele, a LePage spokesman, in a statement.

Earlier in the day, the committee voted down a similar widely denounced  bill sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, that would take away the pension for any governor who doesn’t serve two terms. He has said the bill is aimed squarely at LePage because of state pension reductions he supported.
 

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