Tax fight reveals the truth about Maine Democrats

One party raises procedural objections to passing a routine bill that comes up regularly and has rarely been the source of controversy before. Its members claim it stems from legitimate policy disagreements, but given its timing in an election year and their personal distaste for the chief executive of the other party, a reasonable person could wonder at their motive.

No, it's not about President Obama and congressional leadership from the other party. Carlos Barria | Reuters

No, it’s not about President Obama and congressional leadership from the other party. Carlos Barria | Reuters

Am I describing a fight over the debt ceiling or the federal budget in Washington? Sadly, no: thanks to deals reached between Speaker Paul Ryan and President Barack Obama, those issues are resolved for the moment. No, this is a fight right here in Maine — though it has become an issue in part thanks to those deals. In Augusta, legislators right now are considering whether to change Maine tax laws to conform to federal tax law changes passed late last year.

This is known as “tax conformity,” and it’s an issue that comes up frequently, though it rarely receives the attention that it has this session. Usually this is a fix that is easily passed on a bipartisan basis, but it’s important legislation nonetheless. It’s important not only to individuals, who must file their tax returns shortly (if they haven’t already), but to businesses, for whom taxes are often more complex. Unfortunately, until the tax conformity legislation is passed, it’s hard to complete one’s taxes, as you can’t know whether the federal breaks will also apply to your state taxes.

Democrats are claiming that they want to fund tax conformity fully, but only for one year (the 2015 tax year) rather than the two years proposed by LePage and Republicans. They argue that they only want to fund one year so that they can make sure there’s funding available for other competing needs as they work to find money for things like the recently-passed expansion of taxpayer-funded campaigns. In other words, they want to rush through a temporary fix rather than a permanent one at taxpayers’ expense.

However, given their antipathy to LePage, one suspects that the Democrats may be more interested in brinksmanship and holding tax conformity hostage for election-year shenanigans. After all, they staged a ridiculous, embarrassing debate over impeaching Gov. Paul LePage — one that ultimately failed and revealed the ineffectiveness of their own leadership. That was a setback for them, and this affords them the opportunity to reunite the party with a win over the administration.

Moreover, while they they say they support small businesses and growing the economy in our state, this debate shows that many Maine Democrats actually have other priorities. They’re ignoring the strong advocacy of business groups in Maine, who are rightly pointing out that stability is important to businesses of all sizes. That’s why the bipartisan federal budget deal, though it was far from perfect, was a huge boon to businesses: it provided stability. The uncertainty caused by partisan gamesmanship isn’t good for the economy.

Maine Democrats may claim to support small business when they’re out knocking on doors, but when they reach Augusta they always make it clear that small businesses are not their top priority. They’d rather delay legislation that helps small businesses because it threatens the other funding priorities of their base. If they truly prioritized small businesses, they’d find a way to make a two-year plan for tax conformity work.

Instead they’ve managed to create a partisan fight out of a bipartisan solution. They’ve showed that they’re not interested in working with their Republican colleagues to help improve the state’s economy unless those solutions fit neatly within their own ideological boxes. Maine deserves better out of legislators, especially if we want our state to have a more prosperous future.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.