May 22, 2018
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Stop clowning around on state budget

By Daniel Lee, Special to the BDN

Is it me, or were any other Mainers surprised at how quickly the Legislature and governor put aside their differences to work together to ensure the Guinness would flow early on St. Patrick’s Day?

Don’t get me wrong; I love all things Irish. (In fact, my grandparents got “off the boat” in Portland fresh from Galway.) But this isn’t about me or St. Patrick. It’s about the clowns in Augusta who dropped everything last week to ensure that Mainers could get to a tap at 6 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, while municipal and school officials lay awake at night trying to figure out how to minimize the Draconian cuts proposed in the state budget.

You see, I suffer from a wicked bad case of Down East coulrophobia. For those who may not be familiar, coulrophobia is a fear of clowns. Down East coulrophobia is a very specific fear of political clowns in the state’s legislative and executive branches. I am beginning to suspect that other Mainers share my affliction. Support groups are springing up everywhere.

All across our state, municipal and school officials are holding meetings with legislators about significant losses in vital state revenue. City councilors, selectmen and school committee members are sounding the alarm of likely reductions in essential services, such as public safety, road maintenance and school operations. Municipal revenue sharing and funding 55 percent of public-school costs are state laws that some clowns in Augusta are choosing to ignore because the only way out is to raise taxes, and no self-respecting politician wants to do that.

If Augusta won’t provide municipalities and schools with the necessary revenues required to provide critical services, then cities and towns will have no choice in June but to cut essential services and raise property taxes — one of the most regressive taxes.

The only way out of this crisis is to increase state revenues with minimally regressive taxes, such as a snack, meal or lodging tax. To do this would take courage, something currently in short supply in our state’s capital. The Democrats desperately want the Blaine House back in the next election and don’t want to be tagged with raising taxes — the death knell for aspiring politicians. And Gov. Paul LePage’s position on the matter is no secret.

Remember, this is the guy who only wants to pay his hospital bill and ignore the rest. I wonder how that would work in my household. This month I’ll pay the electric bill, then tell the oil company it will just have to wait until my next paycheck arrives at some unknown future date. Clowns, while known for their big shoes and water squirting out of plastic boutonnieres, are generally not considered courageous statesmen willing to make the unpopular decisions for the greater good.

A regressive tax takes a larger percentage of money from low-income people than from high-income people and is generally applied uniformly — the property tax, for example. Conversely a tax on snack foods, restaurant meals or lodging would affect only those who can afford these luxuries. When these state tax revenues are returned to municipalities and schools, the burden on the local property tax is eased. Everybody wins. Remember LD 1? My friends, we don’t have much time. June 30 will be here before we know it.

I began this essay by perhaps unfairly characterizing some politicians in Augusta as clowns — but only in jest and for effect. I know they truly care about their neighbors and fellow Mainers. They just can’t seem to work together to solve this problem. Surely there must be one or two who will step forward with a minimally regressive revenue proposal sometime soon. They could even add a sunset provision to make it more palatable.

Perhaps once one genuine Maine statesman steps up, Sparkle, Bubble, Button, Giggle, Daisy, Scooter, Lucky and Chuckles will follow suit. Won’t you help me fight Down East coulrophobia? Call your legislators today, and let them know it’s OK to tax that bag of chips, a delicious meal at one of our many fine restaurants or your room at one of our state’s wonderfully luxurious hotels. Heck, it’s even better when the tourists pay.

Daniel Lee, of Bangor, is superintendent of the Brewer School Department.

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