With the legislative session winding down, it is becoming rapidly apparent that whatever tax changes are finally approved — if any — they will bear little resemblance to Gov. Paul LePage’s initial reform package. That much seems clear. What is less clear, however, is the fate of LePage’s proposal to completely eliminate the state income tax by 2020.
While the partisan rejection of the measure in committee would seem to indicate it is doomed when it comes before the full Legislature, that is not a foregone conclusion. Republicans in the Legislature have remained fully supportive of this initiative, and they have indicated their willingness to fight for it on the floor. It seems likely to receive the support of most — if not all — Republican legislators, and that’s certainly a good thing.
The question, though, is whether the plan gains any support on the other side of the aisle. With a fairly closely divided House, it might be able to get a majority vote, but as a constitutional amendment, that won’t be enough for passage. It would need to receive two-thirds support in both chambers in order to be referred to the voters. That’s the important thing to keep in mind here as this proposal comes up for a vote in coming days: this isn’t a vote on whether to eliminate the income tax. Instead, it’s a vote on whether to let the voters decide the fate of the income tax.
Unfortunately, Democrats seem intent on ignoring this, and acting as if this vote would be the final say in the matter. Their arguments so far have focused on the impact eliminating the income tax would have on the state budget, as though this legislation would immediately repeal it the next day. It wouldn’t, though it would give voters a chance to have a say on whether they want it repealed by 2020.
With that extended deadline, Democrats have two additional options to fight the measure if they oppose it. Rather than simply refusing to let it go to the ballot box, they could, first of all, mount an effective campaign against it. After all, tax initiatives have had a mixed measure of success at the ballot box in the state; there’s no reason to assume the constitutional amendment would pass if it were put to voters.
Even if it does pass, Democrats don’t have to simply cut spending to make up for the deleted income tax revenue. They would have the option of expanding or increasing other taxes to make up for at least part of the future shortfall. Indeed, they could take passage of the income tax referendum as an opportunity to force the kind of tax reform that might be going nowhere this session.
Regardless of the outcome on the floor, Republicans needn’t give up the fight if they fail to get the votes. Rather than offering this plan as a constitutional amendment, Republicans could bring it forth as a citizen initiative with statutory language if it fails to pass the Legislature. Of course, that approach wouldn’t be as solid as a constitutional amendment, but it is certainly a viable option. It would also give Republicans the option of fleshing out the proposal, if they so chose. Constitutional amendments should be general, but citizen initiatives can be more detailed.
LePage’s idea to completely eliminate the income tax is a bold one, and should bring the Republican Party back together after the budget fight. It’s an opportunity for Maine Republicans to all work together toward a common goal and show the people of our state what the party stands for. The question is, is it one we will seize?