December 8, 2013

Our View: Enough loopholes can be closed to spare towns

Tax breaks should be scaled to prevent a further cost shift from the state to municipalities.

There is no issue that is more popular in the abstract and more difficult to achieve than tax reform. Almost everyone will say they’d like to close a few loopholes to take some pressure off other taxpayers, but the word “loophole” does not appear in state law.

Every tax expenditure is a program that was designed to encourage a certain activity, from restoring historic buildings to investing in industrial machinery. They were all passed by legislators, signed by a governor and made law. Recipients of the break may have made investments with the expectation of tax relief.

So it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the task force charged with finding $40 million to reduce a cut to municipal revenue sharing, has not come up with a bipartisan consensus on what it would take to balance the budget. The task force is scheduled to present its findings to the Appropriations Committee on Dec. 12, and its members are instead prepared to present only a “road map” of the kind of changes that could be made to find $40 million.

That leaves the tough decisions to the Legislature in what is sure to be a highly charged political environment, which has usually been a death sentence for this kind of effort.

But this time, it should be different. While $40 million might sound like a lot of money, it looks small compared to the more than $6 billion in tax breaks the state now offers. And whatever can’t be recovered through ending tax breaks will be passed on to cities and towns. With every corporate tax break weighed against the a local property tax bill, lawmakers should find a way to keep that from happening.

There are a number of targets identified by the task force that would be a good place to start:

The Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program cost the state $42.5 million this year. The tax program was designed as an economic development tool, to attract good-paying jobs to Maine. Now it’s also used by big-box retailers that invest in little besides shelving and cash registers. Four of the top seven BETR receivers are retail outlets. Taking away this property-tax rebate is not going to prevent a national chain from building a store in a place where it thinks it can make money.

Removing the retail tax break alone would yield $3 million. Trimming back the BETR program should be the first step for the Appropriations Committee.

Other likely targets are the Pine Tree Business Development zones, at $3.3 million a year, and the historic property rehabilitation tax credit, worth $8 million a year. None of these programs could be eliminated, but all of them could be adjusted to come up with $40 million.

The task force has made the job more difficult by forswearing any sales tax exemptions that are now in place. Charging tax on items like ski-lift tickets or golf greens fees would be paid mostly by tourists and would not hurt these businesses. But this kind of tax reform has proved unpopular in the past, and including them in this package would make it too easy to defeat.

Opponents will try to paint these rollbacks as tax increases, but they are not. Taxes are going up. Lawmakers will have to decide whether it’s businesses or homeowners who will have to pay the bill.

Lawmakers should remember why the task force was created. Residential property taxpayers have already taken a hit in the current budget, especially the 200,000 households who saw their benefits cut or eliminated under the curtailment of the “circuit-breaker” residential tax rebate program. Local property taxpayers also have had to make up for a loss of state support for education and increased demand for General Assistance.

Cutting back tax breaks for business won’t be easy, but it won’t be easy for Maine residents to pay their property tax bills if it doesn’t happen.

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