AUGUSTA, Maine — All five candidates for governor vow to steer away from new taxes to balance a state budget that faces a shortfall in the $1 billion range. They also agree that now is not the time to raise the state’s 29.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax to address funding needs for Maine’s highway system.
The question of whether to raise taxes as Maine recovers from the Great Recession elicited agreement among the candidates — a Republican, a Democrat and three independents.
“As governor, I will not balance the budget next year on the backs of Maine taxpayers with increased taxes and fees,” Republican Paul LePage wrote.
“I have no plans to raise taxes,” said his Democratic rival, Libby Mitchell, who contends that money can be saved by implementing lean management practices and keeping closer tabs on state contractors. She also wants to change the state’s Medicaid system, MaineCare, to emphasize prevention in addition to treatment.
All five candidates responded to a three-question survey from The Associated Press seeking their views on the looming budget deficit, highway funding problems and the perennial issue of overhauling the state tax structure, despite voters’ decision in June to repeal legislatively approved changes. The winner will succeed Gov. John E. Baldacci, a Democrat, who could not seek re-election because of term limits.
“Emphatically, NO” was independent Kevin Scott’s response to whether he’d advocate for new or higher taxes. Independent Eliot Cutler said he would not consider higher broad-based taxes without comprehensive tax reform. Independent Shawn Moody said he “will not be looking to raise taxes, certainly not until I feel we have completed a top to bottom review of state government programs and spending.”
Cutler said a major restructuring of state government is in order. He would reduce the number of contracted human service providers, trim MaineCare benefits, merge the state university and community college systems, and eliminate the Board (not Department) of Environmental Protection.
LePage, Waterville’s mayor, promises “an independent, topdown review of state government to identify waste, fraud and abuse of our tax dollars.” Scott would order an audit of all state agencies.
The need for highway funding due to increasing costs of maintenance and falling fuel consumption has been a constant refrain in the State House, and Maine’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since mid-2009.
But none of the candidates supports an increase.
Instead, Mitchell called for “robust” capital expenditures through bonding. LePage said a “bloated transportation bureaucracy has consumed too much of Maine’s highway budget, and our roadways have suffered as a result.”
Cutler said highways and bridges have been neglected for too long and public safety’s at stake.
“I am not ready to call for an increase in the gas tax, but it would be irresponsible and disingenuous not to consider one, given the magnitude of the problem we face,” said Cutler.
Agreeing that more money is not necessarily the answer, Scott promised to examine priorities and “establish realistic expectations” for highways and infrastructure.
Moody said gas tax revenues will continue to shrink as cars’ fuel economy increases, so the state needs more creative solutions that do not simply rely on gas taxes.
Candidates had widely differing views on whether efforts should resume to overhaul Maine’s tax code. The question was prompted by the voters’ decision this summer to repeal a major revision passed by the Legislature that broadened the sales tax to more goods and services while lowering income tax rates.
Mitchell said Maine’s tax code is out of date and discourages investment. “Maine’s income tax is too high and I will continue the effort to lower it,” said the state Senate president.
LePage called the previous overhaul, which extended sales taxes to things like car repairs and dry cleaning, “a bad idea” and said that as governor he would reject any similar tax initiative. “Reducing the overall tax burden for all Maine citizens and small businesses is my vision for tax reform,” LePage said.
Cutler said Maine’s tax base is too narrow and income rates are too high, shifting the burden to property taxpayers. “Maine needs comprehensive tax reform,” said Cutler, but not before elected officials have maximized savings and gotten spending under control.
Moody opposed the earlier reforms, calling them a tax shift, and said “real tax reform” that simplifies the tax code and lowers the overall burden is needed. Scott said he’d work with the Legislature and state workers to reduce the size and cost of government before recommending changes in the tax code.