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May 12, 2013

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Our View: Legislators have to build budget around governor

We have to hand it to Gov. Le-Page. He may not always be right on the facts, but he tells you what he thinks.

A startling moment of candor took place in Portland last week, as the governor addressed the business community at a Portland Regional Chamber breakfast.

Asked about the biennial state budget, which must be finalized in seven weeks in order to avoid a government shutdown, the governor said, "As we sit right now, there's no budget. There's an $850 million hole."

In those sentences, LePage acknowledged that his own budget proposal, which pays for income tax cuts for the wealthy on the backs of local property taxpayers, is not a serious solution to the state's problems. Released in January, the governor's spending plan was the subject of public hearings in the Legislature, where virtually no one outside the administration offered any support. The governor's comment indicates that he considers his plan a nonstarter and that all that's left is a hole.

But that doesn't mean that LePage is interested in any of the alternative approaches that have been floated, particularly the Gang of 11's nonpartisan tax reform proposal, which would do some things that should be attractive to the him. It eliminates the inheritance tax and cuts the top income tax rate in half. The state would balance the budget by raising and expanding the sales tax, softening the blow to state residents by offering rebates and property tax relief.

LePage stepped on any notion that he could get behind such an effort, and if he can't support a plan that would halve the tax rate, it's hard to see him hopping on board with any of the other proposals that have been floated, such as the tax fairness bill sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, which would raise taxes on high earners -- who pay a lower percentage of their income than the state average in all state taxes -- and provide credits for lower-income Mainers, who pay above the state average. A system like that would raise enough new revenue to close about half the budget gap.

With the governor showing no sign of trying to find a budget proposal that could pass, the pressure is on for some combination of Democrats and Republicans that comes up to 101 in the House and 23 in the Senate to stick together and enact a budget without him, if necessary over his veto.

A final plan may be one of those already presented, or it may be a new one built from parts, but it should reflect two core values:

The combined property, sales and income taxes paid by Maine residents should be considered when determining tax fairness.

The tax code should be modernized so that visitors and part-time residents, who enjoy the benefits of Maine's resources and public infrastructure, are asked to help support it.

The next few weeks will show who the constructive problem-solvers in Augusta are.

Don't expect to see the governor in that group. He's shown that he's not interested in compromise, and he usually speaks his mind.





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