Tax reform rivals submit signatures

Posted Sept. 11, 2009, at 8:16 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Opponents of the tax restructuring bill that passed the Legislature this spring submitted more than 60,000 signatures to state election officials on Friday in an effort to force a statewide vote on the issue next June.

Several dozen people hauled the boxes of petition signatures to the secretary of state’s office only hours before the deadline for suspending enactment of the law, which lowers Maine’s top income tax rate but broadens the sales tax.

The big question, however, is how many of those roughly 60,500 signatures election officials will toss out as duplicates or invalid. Supporters need at least 55,087 signatures to trigger a people’s veto vote on the issue during the June 2010 election.

“You anticipate that not all 60,000 are going to be good signatures, but it is way too early to say if that is a wafer-thin margin,” Matthew Dunlap, the secretary of state, said Friday afternoon. Dunlap said he hopes his staff can complete the review within 30 days, but his office’s first priority is preparing for and conducting the November election.

Leaders of the repeal campaign said they already have culled unregistered voters from the petitions with the help of municipal clerks.

“These are clean, certified signatures,” said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, one of the petition drive’s organizers.

Passed in the final days of the Legislative session along a largely party-line vote, the bill lowers the maximum income tax rate for Mainers earning less than $250,000 from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent effective Jan. 1. The bill’s authors claim many residents will end up paying even less than 6.5 percent thanks to new tax credits built into the law.

In order to offset the loss of income tax revenue, lawmakers applied the sales tax to more goods and services, such as car repairs and movie tickets. The bill, LD 1495, also increases Maine’s meals and lodging tax from 7 percent to 8.5 percent.

Supporters claim the new tax system will result in nearly 90 percent of Mainers paying less total taxes, with tourists and other visitors shouldering more of the tax burden. But Trahan and other critics contend the changes will hurt lower-income Mainers and those on fixed incomes while harming the tourism industry.

“I believe this law is an outright attack by the Democrats on Maine’s working people,” said Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, at a press conference. “The voters will now have their say.”

The bill’s supporters, while disappointed by Friday’s news, say they believe the law will stand because Maine Revenue Service figures show that the vast majority of Mainers will see their taxes decrease.

“I think there was a reason that they had difficulty collecting enough signatures, and that’s because this policy makes sense for Maine,” said Rep. John Piotti, a Unity Democrat who serves as House majority leader. “I am confident that if this even does get put on the ballot as a people’s veto measure that the people’s veto will get overturned.”

Political tensions have been growing in recent weeks as the tax law’s critics scrambled to collect enough signatures. Trahan and Webster accused the Legislature’s Democratic leadership of harassing, bullying and even blocking efforts to gather signatures from voters.

“Never in my years in the Legislature or living in the state of Maine have I seen such a thing: Democrats in the leadership actually blocking people from signing our petitions,” Trahan said. “Ladies and gentlemen, signing a petition is a constitutional freedom.”

Piotti and other Democrats forcefully denied that anyone interfered with people trying to sign petitions. Instead, the law’s supporters sent representatives to offer information countering what they said were blatantly false statements being made about the bill by petition gatherers.

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