Legislation proposed by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, to raise the state tax on earned income over $250,000 from 7.95 percent to 8.5 percent won’t solve state government’s fiscal problems. The Maine Revenue Services estimates the income tax hike, if enacted, would add $10 million to state coffers during the next two years. That’s barely seat-cushion change in the funding needed for the $6.3 billion biennial budget Gov. Paul LePage proposed for 2014-15.
But the numbers are less important than the message conveyed by Saviello’s proposal, which gained a required House sponsorship from Rep. Teresea Hayes, D-Buckfield. This collaboration by Saviello and Hayes demonstrates that rank-and-file legislators recognize that their constituents don’t want LePage and the Legislature’s new Democratic leaders to stay in their ideological bunkers until the other side blinks.
Perhaps this collaboration by two legislative mavericks will persuade other lawmakers that fixing Maine’s governmental problems requires a break from political orthodoxy. A Republican proposing a tax increase for wealthy Mainers should at least be enough to motivate others to step out from behind the partisan blinds and see beyond the defensive postures that inhibit real reform.
That willingness to address honestly and collaboratively the structural problems that make it so difficult to pay for Maine government must extend beyond the State House. For example, municipal leaders can’t simply focus on fighting the LePage administration’s proposal to suspend revenue sharing for 2014 and 2015. Renewed discussion of regional service delivery has to occur.
If the gap between overall revenue and the cost of providing public services is so wide that a Republican state senator can propose a tax increase less than a month after his party’s signature income tax rate cuts took effect, then it’s also time for Mainers to assess the real cost of local control.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, former mayor of that city, argues that the state’s current fiscal climate demands “a more serious conversation about how we get local governments to consolidate … to maintain the long tradition of home rule while at the same time giving local governments incentives to join together in regional solutions where real savings can be had.”
Those discussions should start at the local level, and include — as Katz suggests — state government in a collaborative, rather than adversarial, role. Wouldn’t providing state funds as incentives to cities and towns to regionalize business, human resources, maintenance and public safety services yield a greater return on that investment and allow for better targeting of revenue-sharing funds in the future?
Similarly, it’s time to transform the dialogue about funding public education in Maine from the current wrangling over school subsidies to a more reasoned exploration of how the state could support cost-saving regional collaboration, not forced consolidation. Investing state dollars to guide school districts in setting up systems to share transportation, business expenses, curriculum development, special education and other programs, as suggested by David Silvernail of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, could produce savings that would satisfy both state and local officials.
Maine government must move beyond single-choice, polarized propositions — tax cuts versus tax increases, local control versus a “nanny state,” and other outdated political dichotomies — to more nuanced, creative approaches designed to provide public services in a fiscally responsible manner.