Question 1 fans, foes in final-hour war of words

Posted June 06, 2010, at 7:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The already contentious debate over tax reform in Maine intensified over the weekend as the parties on both sides of Question 1 accused each other of attempting to deceive voters in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.

Leaders of the Yes on 1 campaign charged opponents of Question 1 with airing “the most blatantly misleading and disingenuous TV ad campaign ever seen in Maine.” Supporters of the No on 1 campaign responded by calling the Yes campaign’s ads “blatantly false.”

“There is going to be a push to get the truth out right through when the polls close on Tuesday night,” said Sen. Joseph Perry, D-Bangor, an architect of the tax reform law that would be repealed if Question 1 wins at the ballot box.

Although overshadowed by the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primaries, Question 1 on the ballot is the culmination of a debate that has been raging since spring 2009.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to uphold or repeal a law that supporters describe as the state’s most significant tax reform in generations — the so-called “Maine miracle” — but that critics dismiss as little more than a shell game with taxpayer money. Unlike in the gubernatorial primaries, all registered Maine voters can cast ballots on Question 1 and on several bond issues on the ballot.

A yes vote on Question 1 will repeal a tax restructuring law that, if implemented, would lower the top income tax rate for Mainers earning less than $250,000 from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent.

In an attempt to shift more of the tax burden onto tourists and visitors, the controversial law also would broaden the sales tax to apply to additional goods and services while raising Maine’s meals and lodging tax from 7 percent to 8.5 percent. The critics behind the people’s veto effort contend the changes will harm Mainers and the economy, however.

Fueled by hefty donations from outside groups, the two sides continued over the weekend to wage a bitter ad war in which both sides accuse the other of trying to raise Mainers’ taxes.

The result, representatives from both sides said, is a lot of confused voters less than two days before the election.

“Every day, people voice to me their confusion about the wording of the question and which way to vote if they are opposed to all these new taxes,” Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said in a nearly five-minute-long radio address urging listeners to vote yes on Question 1.

“The disadvantage we have is their message is very easy to get to the public,” said Perry, representing the “no” camp. “It is very hard to get to everyone with the truth.”

The Yes on 1 campaign has focused much of its advertising on the 105 newly taxed items — from movie and amusement tickets to car repairs — as they attempt to paint the changes as a tax hike.

“They’re taking [taxes] out of both pockets; they’re just shifting the amounts,” said Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle. “And they are saying, ‘Trust us.’”

Additionally, the Yes on 1 ads accuse the Democrats of eliminating tax deductions on mortgages, medical expenses and property taxes.

“That couldn’t be more blatantly false,” replied Perry. Under the new tax system, those deductions would be replaced by a new tax credit system that likely would leave more money in the pockets of most Mainers, not less, he said.

“They are not losing the value. We are just doing it differently,” he said.

The core message of the No on 1 campaign’s onslaught of ads, meanwhile, has stoked the ire of Question 1 supporters.

“If Question 1 passes, it gives tourists a tax break and raises the income tax for 95 percent of Mainers,” warns the narrator in one No on 1 ad. “Don’t be fooled: A yes vote will raise your income taxes.”

Such statements make McKane and other Yes on 1 leaders livid.

“It’s unbelievable they would dare to say a yes vote would increase your taxes,” McKane said. “First of all, the bill has never even gone into effect. Your taxes will stay the same.”

So who is right?

As frequently happens, it comes down to semantics.

By collecting more than 60,000 petition signatures, the organizers of the Question 1 campaign effectively suspended the law. That suspension prohibited lower income tax rates from kicking in, pending the results of Tuesday’s vote.

“The law is in effect, it just has not been implemented,” said Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for the No Higher Taxes for Maine, a political action committee behind the No on 1 campaign.

“We really feel that Mainers have been deprived of $50 million in tax relief already. And if it’s repealed, [the rate] will go to 8.5 percent,” she said.

Perry concurred, although he has not been directly involved in the development of the ads.

“Yes, they suspended it, but the law is passed until it is repealed,” he said.

But in the GOP’s weekly radio address, Raye called the No on 1 tactics “the most blatantly misleading and disingenuous TV ad campaign ever seen in Maine.”

“They seek to confuse voters into believing that a yes vote will increase taxes from what you’ve been paying — a completely false claim,” Raye said. “The fact is, not a single Mainer will see a tax increase if Question 1 passes.”

This Tuesday, voters will declare which side they believe in the war of words over Question 1.

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