Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Naively, some of us thought we had solved the issue of peddling "tax reform" as a way to conceal higher taxes in 2010, when a Democratic Legislature tried to raise taxes on everything we bought while offering only a nominal income tax reduction in return.
That was firmly rejected by 61 percent of Maine voters. They went on to elect a Republican Legislature and governor, who actually did cut income taxes and take 70,000 lower-income taxpayers off the rolls.
But voters decided they couldn't live without Democrats in charge, so they returned them to legislative control two years later.
And this is what we got: A "bipartisan" virtual replay of the last "reform," with a few added tweaks and curlicues, but this time with no pretense at keeping the tax bite level overall.
Instead of being revenue-neutral, this "Gang of 11" bill is being sold as "budget-neutral" -- raising enough new money to balance the budget without significant cuts to state revenue sharing, education and welfare.
Since estimates of additional revenue sufficient to do that are running well north of $200 million, and may be more than $300 million, according to some lawmakers, the net amount of new taxes the sponsors believe the bill could rake in is huge.
At least L.D. 1496, a vaguely laid-out "concept draft" of a law to "Modernize and Simplify the Tax Code" up for a hearing today, is up front about its sponsors' desire to generate $700 million from a mixture of residents and tourists partly via an increase in the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent. (Note: That's not a "1 percent hike," it's a 20 percent increase.)
In return, sponsors say, personal and corporate income taxes go down and the estate tax is repealed, among other things.
But, if the past is any guide, rates lowered today can be raised again tomorrow as lawmakers respond to pressure-group "needs." Look at the near-decade it took us to get rid of a previous "temporary" hike in the sales tax to 6 percent.
The bill hikes real estate transfer taxes on a sliding scale, while, as the text states, "The cigarette tax increases from $2 to $3.50. . . . The tax rate on prepared foods increases from 7 percent to 8 percent, and the definition of 'prepared foods' is expanded. The total excise tax rate on malt liquor and hard cider products increases from 35 cents to 70 cents per gallon . . . (and) on wine . . . from 60 cents to $1.20 per gallon. The tax rate on automobile rentals increases from 10 percent to 15 percent .. . (and) on lodging . . . from 7 percent to 8 percent, plus an additional 2 percent to be allocated to the Tourism Marketing Promotion Fund."
And the bill taxes many goods and services at the 6 percent rate, including groceries, heating fuel, electricity, water, all sorts of "personal services" such as funerals, haircuts, beauty parlor and health club visits, business and professional services, home repairs, cable and satellite TV and Internet service, telephone charges and "meals served in cafeterias and dining halls."
While pondering claims that this pushes these tax hikes off onto "tourists and other nonresidents," think of how many of them you pay.
That makes it more interesting, doesn't it?
The bill claims most of this will be "offset" by lowering the income tax to a flat 4 percent -- but it cancels almost all deductions, including mortgage interest and charitable contributions, and makes Social Security benefits, which are now exempt, taxable. How much this would save Mainers -- if anything -- remains unclear.
True, the bill promises to give lower-income taxpayers a rebate of up to $2,000 in property tax and sales tax "fairness credits," but people will be paying the new tax rates all year long, and the rebate only shows up once a year.
That's a long time to be out-of-pocket for these new costs.
Property-tax payers are promised a new $50,000 homestead exemption (up to 50 percent of valuation), but the bill's promises that some homeowners would see up to $1,000 reductions in their taxes are dependent on local officials not raising their mill rates to make up the difference.
Some doubt the bill will ever become a formal, detailed proposal, but some of its provisions may survive the budget process.
Still, raising the prospect of tax cuts could produce a truly interesting prospect. Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, says that if the economy improves enough to let us break our historic "tax-and-spend cycle," we should aim instead at a total repeal of the income tax, something Gov. LePage says he too thinks is a worthy goal, although certainly not an immediate one.
Still, the longest journey begins with a single step. Unless, of course, like L.D. 1496, it's a step backwards.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: