LePage cleared in Florida tax gaffe

Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage fields questions  in Bangor earlier this month. On Monday, Florida officials cleared him and his wife on charges they improperly received tax benefits on their property in that state. (Bangor Daily News File Photo)
BDN FILE PHOTO
Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage fields questions in Bangor earlier this month. On Monday, Florida officials cleared him and his wife on charges they improperly received tax benefits on their property in that state. (Bangor Daily News File Photo)
Posted Oct. 25, 2010, at 7:44 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 27, 2010, at 2:56 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – Florida tax officials have cleared the wife of Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage of charges that she improperly claimed a tax exemption on a home in Florida while receiving an identical tax break in Maine.

In a letter sent Monday to the LePages’  attorney, the property tax appraiser in Volusia County, Fla., said the investigation was closed and Ann LePage cleared of any violations because she fell under a seldom-used exception to Florida’s homestead tax law.

Both Maine and Florida offer tax breaks to homeowners who are also residents of the respective states. But in 2009, Ann LePage received homestead exemptions on homes she owns in both Waterville and Ormond Beach, Fla., where her ailing mother lives.

Volusia County property appraiser Morgan Gilreath pointed out in his letter that Florida has an exception wherein anyone who receives a homestead exemption in another state also qualifies in Florida if the property is the permanent residence of a legal dependent.

Because Ann LePage was caring for her mother, who is listed as a dependent on LePage’s income tax filings, she qualifies for the exemption.

“This has been a very unusual case as this issue has only arisen one other time that anyone here can recall,” Gilreath wrote. “It is so unusual that the State of Florida’s homestead application form … has no space for an applicant to check this as a reason for applying for the exemption.”

LePage”s campaign released the letter Monday evening along with a statement in which the candidate accuses his opponents of attempting to use the property tax issue as a way to distract voters from the real issues.

“They would rather twist the truth than talk about Maine being the toughest place in the country to grow a business and the 50,000 unemployed Mainers,” LePage said in the statement. “My campaign is focused on putting people before politics and that will be my message over the final week of this election.”

The issue became a lightning rod last month as LePage”s opponents accused the candidate of shady tax dealings, all the while campaigning on the need to lower taxes.

For his part, LePage dismissed the situation as a clerical mistake, stating his wife filed for the exemption in Waterville 12 years ago and forgot about it.

But he also clashed with the media on the issue after he initially refused to answer questions about his wife’s residency status, why his name was not on either deed, and whether he paid in-state tuition rates for his children attending Florida colleges.

Arden Manning, campaign manager for the Maine Democratic Party, said Monday night that the letter from Florida does not entirely absolve the candidate.

“Paul LePage is running to be governor of Maine, and no matter how you cut it, having a homestead exemption in Maine and Florida is a violation of Maine tax law,” Manning said.

Since the issue came to light, the LePages have repaid Waterville $227.93 in back taxes and requested removal from the homestead program in the city.

And while LePage said in his statement that the letter from the Florida officials “verified what we have said all along,” Manning pointed out that the LePages were entirely unaware of Florida’s exception for dependents. Instead, LePage had been saying all along that it was a mistake, Manning said.

“It’s one or the other,” he said. “It can’t be both ways.”

LePage is widely considered the front-runner in next Tuesday’s election. His opponents in the race for the Blaine House are Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott.

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