Paul LePage’s Math

Posted Sept. 27, 2010, at 8:38 p.m.

Republican Paul LePage might as well have said, “I don’t know and I don’t care,” when pressed for details on one of his tax reduction proposals recently. By showing a hostile disinterest in whether his own proposals make sense fiscally or otherwise, he is a risky choice for this state’s leader.

Asked by rival Eliot Cutler at Saturday’s debate how much his plan to eliminate the state’s tax on pensions would cost, Mr. LePage basically gave Mr. Cutler the verbal finger. “You’re interested in it,” he snapped. “You ought to go look at it.”

No, Mr. LePage, you’re the candidate who made the proposal; you need to explain how it would be paid for. (It would cost about $50 million a year.)

As troubling as Mr. LePage’s attitude is his penchant for not caring how his campaign platforms would — or wouldn’t — work in the real world.

During a testy exchange with reporters earlier this month, Mr. LePage said he wanted to talk about the state’s $1 billion budget deficit rather than his wife’s tax problems.

We’re listening, but we aren’t hearing much in the way of substance. In fact, many of his plans would increase, not shrink, the state’s budget gap.

In his much-touted plan for the state, cleverly called “Turning the Page,” there is a section on cutting spending and reducing taxes (not in that order, mind you).

As for budget cutting, the plan includes zero-based budgeting. This idea, popular a decade ago, requires government departments to build their budgets beginning at zero dollars rather than using the prior year as a starting point. This is a good idea, and many entities do it, but it is hardly the way to come up with $1 billion.

Like other candidates, Mr. LePage also proposed an audit of every state agency and would institute performance benchmarks to ensure government agencies are meeting goals and spending money wisely. Again, these are good ideas, but they won’t help craft the next budget, due only a couple months after the new governor takes office.

After these vague plans for “controlled spending,” the plan, according to a summary available only on the candidate’s Web page, includes this: “Paul wants a flat, 5 percent income tax rate for Maine families that take home at least $30,000. Paul will also work for a flat 5 percent corporate income tax rate for businesses earning between $30,000 and $500,000.”

This would reduce state revenues by an estimated $800 million a year.

Most people would like their taxes to go down. But when there is already a $1 billion budget shortfall, more than doubling that gap isn’t fiscally conservative or even rational.

It is not a solution, just as bringing more Asian kids to Maine to raise test scores and promising to have state agencies review all permits in 90 days are not solutions.

Rather than telling other people to look it up, Mr. LePage needs to fill in the details on these proposals to explain why they aren’t just feel-good sound bites, but rather part of the fiscally responsible government he promises.

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