It was November 1971. The votes from that year’s referendum election had just been counted, and Maine Gov. Ken Curtis’ phone began ringing.

“How’s it feel to know that an income tax is more popular than you are?” joked Sen. Ed Muskie, on the other end of the line.

Muskie wasn’t entirely kidding. The year before, Curtis had just barely squeaked by in a re-election battle that had prompted a six-month-long recount. The income tax, on the other hand, which Curtis had helped to pass during his first term, had just survived a referendum seeking to abolish it with 75 percent of the vote.

That may seem like a surprising figure. How can 75 percent of people enjoy paying the income tax?

The answer is that of course they don’t, but they do appreciate the things that the income tax pays for, like schools, roads and health care. They also understand that the income tax, which is based more on a person’s ability to pay than are property or sales taxes, is the most fair way to fund these necessities.

Maine people aren’t stupid. They’re skeptical of politicians and lobbyists for the wealthy who promise them a free lunch, claiming that deep tax cuts, predominantly for high-income earners, can be made without sacrificing the education of their children and the future of their state.

More recent referendum results show support for fair taxation is just as strong now as it was in the ’70s.

In 2006, conservative activists put forward Maine’s first TABOR referendum. While it wouldn’t have repealed the income tax outright, the so-called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” would have dramatically limited the state’s ability to collect taxes.

While the measure initially polled very well, as Mainers learned more about what it would mean for education, health care and other public services, they turned against TABOR in droves. It was eventually rejected by 54 percent of Maine voters.

In 2009, TABOR was resurrected. Conservative groups with ties to national big money donors, including the Koch brothers, felt that the public mood had changed. Tens of thousands of Maine families were feeling the economic pain of the Great Recession, and the national tea party had begun to organize and speak out against President Obama, public health care and all forms of taxation. Those pushing TABOR took all this as a sign that Mainers would be more accepting of their extreme anti-tax agenda.

They were wrong. That November, voters again rejected the measure to limit income and other taxes, this time with 60 percent of the vote.

So why this history lesson? Because once again, the idea of a statewide referendum on the income tax has reared its ugly head.

In fact, pushing a constitutional amendment to eliminate the income tax, which would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature and then a successful statewide referendum, has become an almost monomaniacal point of focus for Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

On Friday, during an angry, sputtering news conference at which he leveled personal insults at Democratic leaders, LePage even declared that he would veto every single bill sponsored by a Democrat until they voted for his proposed constitutional change.

The idea of LePage getting two-thirds support for such a measure in the Legislature (which would require a large number of Democratic votes) is ludicrous, and even he must realize it. His quixotic obsession with the issue is likely in part an acknowledgment that the rest of his agenda, including a regressive budget that has won disapproval from both sides of the aisle, isn’t going anywhere.

Even if LePage did get his way on a constitutional amendment, or if his allies gathered signatures to place an elimination of the income tax on the ballot as a citizen initiative, history and common sense show it would still almost certainly fail.

Maine people still care about their schools, their communities, the health of their neighbors and the public infrastructure of their state.

Perhaps even more than that, they care about fairness. The cuts in services and increases in other tax rates that would result from an income tax reduction would fall mostly on poor and middle-class Mainers, while the wealthy would receive far more of the benefit.

At the very least, voters would demand a plan for how LePage expects to pay for his tax cuts: how much would be cut from local schools, which Mainers would be denied medication, how many more children would go hungry. That’s something that LePage, for all his pronouncements on the issue, still refuses to provide.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping


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