AUGUSTA, Maine — After weeks of review, state election officials on Monday certified the petition drive to force a statewide vote on the tax reform bill passed by the Legislature.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s ruling allows voters to decide the issue next June, but Democrats may challenge that decision.
“We need to decide what we are going to do within five business days,” Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said after receiving the decision. “We are having internal discussions, and we plan to look at the signatures ourselves.”
Berry, the assistant House majority leader, said Democratic legislative leaders are disappointed that the petition effort was apparently successful.
He said the narrow margin — only 1,020 more signatures than the minimum required under the state constitution — means there is the possibility that not enough valid signatures were gathered, and the tax reform bill will take effect. Under the state constitution, the filing of the petitions stayed the law from taking effect.
“We are confident that there are enough signatures,” said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, the chairman of Still Fed Up With Taxes, the group that led the petition effort. “They had a long time to check signatures. This was supposed to have been done last month.”
His group went to court last week to seek an order directing Dunlap to follow the law and rule on the signatures. Dunlap defended his delay in certifying the signatures because of last week’s election and other petition drives this year.
“We are looking forward to a campaign where we can tell the people of Maine about this bill and what it would do to them,” Trahan said. “Once they know what is in this bill, they will vote to repeal it.”
But it may never make it on the ballot even if the signatures are found valid because of Democrats who do not want the issue to dominate the June primary elections. Berry acknowledged there are a lot of Democrats who are “not enthusiastic” about the issue appearing on the June ballot.
“But right now we are focusing on the petitions and the decisions we have to make,” he said. “If this is on the ballot, we think we can make the case that this bill lowers the income tax and makes for a better tax system and is better for the people of our state.”
Trahan acknowledged he had heard from several lawmakers that the Democrats, with the majority in both the House and Senate, will not allow the issue on the ballot. The Legislature could repeal the tax reform measure making the referendum moot.
“They could do that, but I think they would have to explain to the people why it was so great when they passed it and now it is so bad that they would repeal it,” Trahan said.
The battle over the tax measure was intensely partisan during the legislative debate and became more so when the state Republican Party joined the repeal effort last summer. Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said the tax measure is unfair, and he is confident voters will repeal it.
“This Democrat tax on services would result in a permanent expansion on Maine’s sales tax, and Mainers are eager to repeal it,” he said.
The overhaul reduces the income tax rate to 6.5 percent and broadens the sales tax to apply to a number of now untaxed services and products and raises the overall food and lodging tax. Supporters argue the reform package creates a fairer tax policy and “exports” some of Maine’s tax burden to visitors.
Trahan said when Mainers find out all the details, he is convinced they will vote to repeal the measure. He said it disproportionately hurts seniors on fixed incomes and would be a “drag” on the tourism industry in the state.
“We hope this goes to referendum,” he said. “We’re ready to do battle on this.”