Here are three quotes from progressive leaders calling out Gov. LePage for his budget proposal, which massively cuts taxes for the wealthy and leaves everyone else to pick up the bill:

n “Income inequality has worsened under this administration, and now Gov. LePage offers more of the same policies – policies that have allowed the poor to get poorer, and the rich to get richer.”

n “Under Gov. LePage, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before. His policies have simply not worked.”

n “The top 1 percent are doing great under Gov. Paul LePage today. The top 1 percent earn a higher share of the national income than any year since 1928. The sad reality is that the rich and powerful, under the LePage administration, have gotten fat and happy.”

Oh, wait, I seem to have mixed up my notes and transposed some names. Those are actually statements by Republicans Rand Paul, Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz, attacking President Obama following his State of the Union address.

With quotes like these, it’s clear that national Republicans have realized how out of step they are with the public on increasing income and wealth inequality. They’re now suddenly and cynically doing everything they can to co-opt the issue (well, everything short of actually supporting fair taxes and other measures to help level the playing field).

We’ve also seen this rhetorical dynamic in Maine, with even Gov. LePage now using phrases like “paying their fair share of taxes.” Unfortunately, he most often uses those words to refer to hospitals and colleges paying property taxes, even as he seeks to cut tax rates for the wealthy and large corporations.

While national Republicans like Romney and Paul have mostly been ridiculed for these attempts to reframe the debate, in Maine, LePage and his allies have been more successful. Over the past few weeks, they have been able to shift the public and media conversation toward a fight between municipalities and nonprofits over who will be hurt most by the budget’s tax hikes. The basic inequalities of his budget have received far less attention.

The real debate should be more about the fundamentals of this budget proposal: that LePage’s tax cuts go mostly to the wealthy while he cuts education and health care and leaves a gaping fiscal hole in the years ahead.

Democratic leaders in the Maine House and Senate have taken their time with the budget, seeking to fully understand what LePage is proposing. Now, however, as the details of the budget have become clearer and as they’ve begun to hear public opposition to the inequalities in the budget, they’ve begun to speak out and bring the conversation back to what matters most.

“I have grave concerns that in the governor’s proposal, the most significant tax breaks go to those individuals making more than $175,000 – and to big corporations,” said Sen. Linda Valentino of Saco in this weekend’s Democratic radio address, for one example.

And 38 House members voted last week in favor of an amendment to cancel Gov. LePage’s “bonus depreciation” corporate giveaway (an amendment that, in the interest of full disclosure, was proposed by my brother, Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz of Orono). The vote was mostly a symbolic measure, as Democrats had already ceded the issue rhetorically and in a vote of the Appropriations Committee, but it showed that a good portion of the Democratic caucus wants to start making some public points about tax fairness.

Maine Democrats have some catching up to do if they’re going to speak as forcefully on economic populism as Mitt Romney and seize back some portion of the public debate. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) But they’re beginning to get there.

They can’t always hope to attract the kind of media attention that LePage can just by going off-script at a news conference, and they may not have the infrastructure of Maine’s government to echo their words – but they do have a core progressive message around inequality that has captured the public consciousness to the point that even Ted Cruz feels the need to try to co-opt it.

What the budget debate needs is more talk about basic fairness and some real alternatives to what LePage has proposed. It’s time for Maine Democrats to speak out on inequality more loudly and proudly, at the very least, than Rand Paul.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping