State House

A brown, soggy Christmas approaches, and yes, Jackson Hole, the skiers here are feeling peanut butter and jealous.

It’s been a sleepy couple of weeks in Augusta, but that will change very shortly.

Gov. Paul LePage will officially begin his second term when he is sworn in at the Augusta Civic Center on Jan. 7. Two days later, he’ll unveil his two-year budget proposal.

We have a general idea of what the governor wants to do over the next four years — welfare, reduce or eliminate the state income tax, reduce the size of state government and tackle Maine’s high energy prices. The question is how.

Some of LePage’s priorities could be advanced in the budget, particularly “right-sizing” government. Reducing the state income tax could be done in the budget, provided that the governor offsets the big loss in revenue with spending cuts. The administration has also submitted a bill that proposes tax changes (The details of the bill are not yet public.).

In the meantime, speculation continues about how the administration will reduce the state income tax.

Tax cut proselytizer Grover Norquist was in Maine recently and suggested a different mechanism to lower, and eventually eliminate, the income tax. The method would effectively allocate surplus revenues to income tax reduction. Maine adopted a lite version of the scheme during LePage’s first two years in office. It’s unclear how a more robust version would work without altering how Maine’s surplus revenues are currently dedicated (some education funding, etc.).

We already know that the governor is not a fan of municipal revenue sharing, which he has attempted to cut a number of times during his first term, with some success and a lot of blowback from municipalities. That could help pay for a partial income tax cut, but with a big impact on property taxes. LePage has been criticized for forcing towns to raise property taxes by cutting revenue sharing, but he says it’s ultimately the towns that have the power to cut spending or raise taxes. In other words, if he can find a way to cut state spending, so should towns. That argument hasn’t worked very well, because towns are struggling to maintain roads, etc. So LePage may need a different approach to make his argument work if he cuts revenue sharing again.

One wonders if LePage will take another run at expanding municipalities’ ability to assess fees to nonprofits as a way to mitigate the impact on skyrocketing property tax rates if revenue sharing is cut or eliminated. Nonprofits like hospitals and colleges are exempt from paying property taxes, but some big ones have struck agreements with towns in which they pay towns a fee for impacts on infrastructure costs. State lawmakers have considered — seven times over the past 35 years — ways to extract more out of nonprofits, but with little success.

* The administration continues to reference the state’s unemployment rate, which was 5.7 percent in November, a slight change from the 5.8 percent in October and down 6.4 percent from a year ago.

The number of unemployed declined 5,400 over the year to 40,200.

Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, of North Berwick, issued a statement Friday noting that Maine continues to experience a “jobs gap.”

Maine continues to lag behind the nation and New England.

“Maine’s economy is not recovering fast enough. We are being eclipsed by our New England neighbors. We must close the jobs gap and work together to put good paying jobs first. If we were keeping pace with the rest of the country we would have at least 16,000 more jobs right now. That’s more than 1,000 jobs for each county in Maine. We should be leading not lagging.”

Colleague Christian MilNeil tweeted some additional context:

* The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices will hold a meeting today on a number of fairly routine complaints and violations. However, one issue could generate some interest.

During the commission’s last meeting several members discussed whether there should be some rule changes or legislation to address instances in which state employees become active participants in a campaign. The issue surfaced during the bear-baiting referendum after proponents of the ban sued the state when Inland Fisheries and Wildlife wardens appeared in political ads opposing the measure.

The Ethics staff was asked to draft some potential changes to the law that would require campaigns to disclose such activity as in-kind donations. The proposal would simply expand the definition of a contribution. The second proposal — and perhaps the one least likely to gain traction — would require a state agency to register as a campaign committee if the agency spends more than $5,000 to support or oppose a ballot measure.

You can check out the proposals here.

Reading list: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.”

A carefully devised plan” to institute right to work at the local level.

On the radar: This.

Department of Self-Promotion: Here’s a look at whether lobbyists should disclosure their advocacy activity at the municipal level. Currently state law only require State House lobbyists to disclose their advocacy efforts.