Three of us from the paper’s editorial board, plus news columnist Bill Nemitz, held a pair of conference calls this week with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders on the new state budget.

The Democrats were first, and a more cheerful group would be hard to imagine.

It’s impossible to tell how much of their glee was sincere and how much was spin, but House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, certainly sounded as if it were Christmas morning and Santa had been exceedingly generous.

Democrats in Augusta were facing an unfamiliar situation when the Legislature kicked off with the first Republican-majority-and-governor team since the 1960s. You can almost hear them whispering to themselves in the State House hallways: “What’s a minority? What does it do? How can we survive?”

Well, they figured it out, and by the time the final version of the budget rolled out of committee, they had been able to alter Gov. LePage’s priorities in some fairly major ways. Gone was a higher public employee contribution to their retirement fund. Back in was all sorts of entitlement funding that had been proposed for cuts.

And perhaps most significantly, what was arguably the governor’s most important and visible promise, to trim state taxes by $203 million (amounting to only 3.3 percent of the total $6 billion budget), had been itself cut back by a full 25 percent, with many of Le-Page’s proposals delayed until the biennium’s second year.

And yet, Rep. Cain’s comment on that quasi-evisceration was this passionate statement:

“My caucus hates these tax cuts. It hates them.” And then she repeated the comment: “They hate these tax cuts. They hate them.”

That inevitably led me to this question: What do rank-and-file Democrats hate about reducing the top tax rate, melding several income categories into one, and bringing the Maine code into alignment with federal standards for the personal and standard deductions?

The reply came in two flavors, one the standard “it-gives-too-much-to-the-wealthy” mantra, and the other being, “There are other things we could have spent the money on.”

OK, I thought, what else did I expect them to say?

Recall that when the Democrats had total control of state government during the last legislative session, they labored hard on what they fondly labeled “tax reform.” Under the guidance of former Rep. John Piotti, they drafted a law that didn’t cut total taxes at all.

If you were looking for a response to the question, “What kind of tax cuts do Democrats like?” that might be some sort of an answer. When they had the power, they looked at the opportunity to reduce Mainers’ tax burdens and whiffed like a Little Leaguer at his first tryout for T-ball.

Instead, Democrats came up with a bill that was (oh, the glory of it!) “revenue-neutral.”

That is, they produced cuts in the state’s income tax rates, including lowering the top tax rate from its current 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent — and then took all that money away by raising sales tax rates on things like movie tickets, car repairs and pet grooming. (But, oddly enough, not golf games or lawyers’ fees. Strange, eh?)

Anyway, it took opponents about 16 seconds to gather enough signatures to put the monstrosity on hold for a people’s veto, which the people were happy to approve, the ungrateful wretches.

Then, even more ungratefully, voters gave Republicans the majority in both legislative chambers last November.

So when GOP leaders, including Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry and House Speaker Bob Nutting of Oakland called in, they were asked about Cain’s comment.

They expressed bewilderment about it, noting that every vote in Appropriations had been unanimous except one, which only had a solitary dissenter — who was a Republican.

The GOP leaders added that the income tax changes dropped 30,000 people from any tax obligation entirely (“Hardly a break for the wealthy,” one cracked) and Nutting said that other cuts were aimed at “job-creating sectors” of the state.

That’s worth noting, but it’s also worth noting that when Cain made the original comment, it was with a great deal of emphasis, almost amounting to a passionate declaration of principle. Tax cuts — at least these tax cuts — rub plenty of Democrats the wrong way.

Why? Cain was concerned enough about the issue to call me Thursday, saying that Democrats agreed to the cuts that passed because they were tradeoffs for the restoration of other programs they valued.

She said her party was not opposed to some tax changes, citing its record on Pine Tree Zones, R&D subsidies and other “job-creating” proposals.

When I asked if these ideas didn’t have a strong “trickle-down” flavor to them, with money ending up in average Mainers’ pockets only after it filtered through many other wallets first, she said her party wanted “targeted” support for programs it valued as opposed to cuts in overall tax rates.

That is, Democratic priorities for state spending are nearly always preferable to those random choices that ordinary individuals might make about how to spend their own funds.

It’s one view of how to use state power, I guess. But lots of Mainers, myself included, don’t happen to share it.

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

[email protected]