AUGUSTA, Maine — Dozens of Gov. Paul LePage’s supporters gathered in the State House on Wednesday to defend budget proposals that they said would create jobs and bring much-needed tax relief to Maine residents and businesses.
The crowd of about 75 people was much smaller than gatherings by hundreds of union members who have filled the hallways of the State House in recent weeks opposing LePage administration proposals that would affect state employee pensions and health benefits.
But the enthusiastic group cheered loudly as speakers talked about the political change that came to Augusta last November and LePage’s emphasis on reform that he says will improve Maine’s business climate.
“Never before have we been this close to the relief and to the reforms that we know will create jobs and prosperity in Maine,” said Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank that helped organize the rally.
The event was held against a growing backdrop of tensions between the LePage administration and organized labor. In the most recent flare-up, the administration angered labor groups with its decision to remove a mural from the lobby of the Department of Labor depicting the history of the labor movement in Maine.
During Wednesday’s rally, speakers repeatedly accused “big labor” and other “special interests” of blocking past attempts at tax relief or government reform, a charge dismissed by labor supporters.
But much of the talk was about the estimated $203 million in tax cuts included in LePage’s budget.
The administration has proposed lowering Maine’s top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent in addition to conforming state tax deduction levels with federal standards. LePage also has proposed exempting estates worth up to $2 million from Maine’s estate tax or “death tax.” The current exemption is $1 million or less.
“Finally, a governor who actually wants to give us back our money. Finally,” Carol Weston, state director for the group Americans for Prosperity-Maine, said to loud applause from the crowd.
As Weston and others spoke, attendees gathered in the Hall of Flags just outside of the governor’s office and held aloft signs with messages such as “We Support Gov. LePage” or “Pensioner Supporting LePage Budget” and “Don’t Buy Union Lies.”
“Governor LePage has promised that this was going to be about people, not politics, and so far his policies have backed up that idea,” said Scott Lansley, a member of the group Maine Taxpayers United.
Recent high-profile rallies and protests — including one in early March that drew more than 500 protesters — underscore the stiff opposition to some of LePage’s budget proposals, however.
State employees and retirees are accusing the Republican governor of financing tax breaks for the wealthy on the backs of public employees by requiring them to pay more for their pensions and health benefits. LePage also has proposed freezing and then capping the cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees and increasing the minimum retirement age for newer hires.
Dan Coyne, fiscal policy analyst with the liberal think tank the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said LePage’s estate tax recommendation primarily would benefit Maine’s wealthiest families. An estimated 400 estates subject to taxation under the existing $1 million threshold would be exempt from the estate tax under the governor’s plan.
Meanwhile, the governor’s proposal to reduce funding for Maine’s Circuit Breaker property tax program by 20 percent would hurt more than 150,000 households, many of them composed of elderly Mainers or those living on low to moderate incomes, Coyne said.
Additionally, Coyne echoed predictions made by other groups that the governor’s budget proposals will put more pressure on local governments to increase property taxes.
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, said LePage’s budget proposal could result in the loss of 180 jobs as a result of $4.4 million in cuts to treatment and prevention programs within the Office of Substance Abuse. Those cuts are compounded by the loss of federal matching dollars, Democrats said.
“We are seeing an alarming trend,” Rep. Tom Longstaff, D-Waterville, said in a statement. “These shortsighted cuts will lead to more local costs with no effort to actually treat the root of the problem. Cutting programs to treat drug addiction doesn’t stop drug abuse, it only causes more stress on local services, from public safety to hospital emergency care.”
Earlier Wednesday, a co-author of a report titled “Rich States, Poor States” by the American Legislative Exchange Council said LePage’s tax cut and pension reform proposals could help Maine improve its “economic outlook” ranking of 44th out of the 50 states.
“We think it is a great start,” said Jonathan Williams, director of the tax and fiscal policy task force for the council, a national organization of state legislators that promotes federalist and conservative public policy. “But it is certainly not going to move Maine into the Top 10 states overnight.”