Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Gov. LePage is clear -- he hates the bipartisan budget that is headed his way, thanks to strong votes in the House and Senate.
If the bipartisan state budget has a chance of surviving a possible veto by Gov. LePage, both parties will have to accept something they don’t like. For Republicans, it’s an increase in sales and meals and lodging taxes; for Democrats, it’s a lack of tax equity.
But no one should be confused into thinking that the Democrats and Republicans who voted for the alternative plan like it much better.
Even the people who worked around the clock to forge the compromise that received supermajorities in the House and Senate late last week have to sell it with the spin that it could have been worse. And they are right. It could have been much worse.
The budget proposal offered by Gov. LePage was worse -- much, much worse -- than the budget he is threatening to veto, even if that would lead to a shutdown of state government. And the parts of the budget that most lawmakers had to hold their nose and vote for were the elements that the governor dumped in their laps in January.
If Gov. LePage had his way, aid to cities and towns would be eliminated, local services like police, fire and public works would be slashed and property taxes would be hiked. The governor also has pushed municipal property taxpayers to take on more responsibility for General Assistance, last-resort aid for the poorest of the poor. And he'd flat-fund education, following midyear "curtailment" cuts that would have resulted in more layoffs and tax hikes.
That is an irresponsible reaction to the state's fiscal problems, and an underhanded way for him to maintain his reputation as a tax cutter while at the same time leading local property taxpayers to pick up the bill.
Legislators did the hard thing and the right thing by voting for the bipartisan budget. Now, if Gov. LePage holds to his veto threat (and there is no way of knowing whether he really means it this time), Republicans will have to withstand political arm-twisting from the governor if they are going to keep state government in business July 1.
They haven't shown the ability to stand up to him so far this session, but they should do so now.
Most Republicans didn't like the governor's budget proposal any more than the Democrats did. They all have municipal governments and schools in their districts, and they heard firsthand what yanking away state support would mean for the people they represent. Still, their negotiators absolutely refused to consider eliminating or delaying the income tax cut passed by the last Legislature, leaving the Appropriations Committee with few options.
The proposal they came up with restores most, but not all, of the cuts to cities and towns that LePage proposed. They restored the money that had been cut from the schools during the last budget year and funded the property-tax relief programs that he would have cut. They paid for these programs by a temporary increase in the general sales tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent and a 1 percent increase in the meals and lodging tax. Both increases would sunset at the end of June 2015.
Republicans who ran on a promise of not raising taxes might find that hard to swallow, but it's no easier for Democrats who promised tax fairness to their voters.
Gov. LePage likes to claim that the cut in income taxes that Republicans pushed through last session benefits all Maine taxpayers, including thousands of low-wage workers who would owe no income taxes at all. But the income tax cuts offer much more to high-wage earners, who end up paying a lower percentage of their income in total taxes (income, sales and property) than the people at the bottom of the wage scale. Raising the sales tax, which hurts lower-income people the most, is not a victory for progressives.
The Democrats could not deliver tax fairness with this budget, but they headed off the most damaging cuts to the people they represent. Programs like General Assistance, Drugs for the Elderly and Head Start have been preserved, and people will still be able to qualify for a homestead exemption and a property tax "circuit breaker."
Last Sunday, we took lawmakers to task, pointing out ways in which this year's budget could have been better. And with more ideological flexibility and creative thinking by both parties, it could have been.
But what the governor has proposed is worse, and if he gets his way, Maine people would have to pay more in property taxes and get by with fewer local services so the governor can maintain his image as a "tax cutter."
A shutdown of state government may bolster the governor's image as a tough guy, but it won't help Maine people or Maine businesses.
Lawmakers have done the right thing by passing the budget, and they should stand by their votes if the governor vetoes it.