Recently the conversation in the Maine gubernatorial race has returned to a familiar topic: taxes. This had been a major topic all along, of course, with Gov. Paul LePage proposing a referendum on tax reduction as part of his State of the State address. The Democrats, meanwhile, have been running against the bipartisan tax cuts enacted during the 125th Legislature after raising taxes when they were in charge this session.
However, it was independent Eliot Cutler who drove the recent conversation, with a proposal to dramatically reduce property taxes in Maine. He would do so by expanding the homestead exemption program, compensating cities and towns for the reduced property tax revenue with increased revenue sharing and a variety of other spending increases.
In and of itself, expanding the homestead program is an excellent idea. Though property taxes in Maine aren’t high for the Northeast, they are compared to other low-income rural states nationwide. Our proximity to Boston seems to have brought their high property taxes to the state (especially in southern Maine) without the attendant jobs or high salaries.
The problem isn’t in expanding the homestead program; it’s in how Cutler chooses to pay for it: with yet higher taxes. He’d raise the sales tax (again), meals and lodging tax, and real estate transfer tax. He’d also expand the goods and services covered by the sales tax, broadening the base. Any tax decrease paid for with a tax increase isn’t really a tax cut, it’s a tax shift.
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because the Democrats tried this approach time and time again, most recently — and briefly — last year. The only difference between their multiple failed tax schemes and Cutler’s proposal is that they wanted to reduce the income tax rather than the property tax. These ideas have been rejected by Mainers at the ballot box, and changing what tax is “reduced” won’t make it more popular.
It’s good to begin a conversation in this state about reducing property taxes; it’s a real problem that needs addressing. If Cutler’s proposal does that, it’s worthwhile for that reason alone. He is, at least, attempting to reduce some taxes, and his concern seems legitimate. That puts him far ahead of the Democrats.
Democrats might pretend to care about high taxes, but they’re more interested in automatic partisan naysaying than real solutions. The truth is that they’re not really interested in lowering any taxes: They’re interested in increasing the size of state government, and any real tax reductions thwart their goal. Any mention they make of tax reduction is a purely political ploy for votes.
Republicans, though, ushered through the largest tax cut in the history of the state when they ran the Legislature — without raising other taxes to pay for it. Maine needs to reduce its overall tax burden, including sales tax, income taxes, property taxes, and all other taxes in the state. When candidates says they want to reduce taxes, ask how they’ll pay for it. If their answer is to just find the revenue elsewhere, they don’t have a legitimate policy proposal; all they have is a talking point handed to them by party leadership without any real substance.
A real tax cut helps to reduce the size of government along with providing relief to struggling Maine taxpayers. We need bold leadership to do this, leaders who recognize that this state spends too much money at all levels of government. We don’t need to just shift which taxes pay for our overly burdensome government. We need to continue to reject these ridiculous shell games with our tax policy, and real reductions in taxes and spending, not more empty talking points.