Five Republican state senators and 23 GOP members of the Maine House demonstrated their understanding of shared sacrifice and compromise for the common good when they voted June 13 in favor of the two-year state budget deal crafted by a unanimous Appropriations Committee.
By joining all but a handful of Democrats in supporting the bipartisan compromise, these Republican lawmakers played a key role in reaching the two-thirds majority required to enact the budget as an emergency measure on July 1. They recognized that with little more than two weeks to go before a new $6.3 billion two-year spending plan must be in place, it was time to dispense with ideological negotiating tactics and settle on an imperfect but workable budget.
Republican lawmakers who voted for the budget will have to hold fast to their principled positions if, as expected, Gov. Paul LePage vetoes the spending plan, sending it back to the House and Senate for critical override votes. The best argument they can offer if LePage’s allies pressure them to sustain a veto would be that a vote against the Legislature’s budget represents a vote for shutting down state government on July 1. That would be the crippling, inevitable outcome of a veto at this juncture.
A majority of legislators and Maine people have made clear that LePage’s original budget proposal, which slashed municipal revenue sharing and property tax relief programs, was unacceptable. During a media briefing Monday, LePage’s finance chief, Sawin Millett, acknowledged that the administration does not have a Plan B.
Unless lawmakers who oppose the Appropriations Committee’s budget can present an alternative capable of gaining two-thirds support in the House and Senate by July 1, voting to sustain a veto would equate to an endorsement of shutting down state government at the height of tourist season. The blame for that shutdown would rest squarely with legislators who reverse their positions to sustain a veto.
Lawmakers considering that flip-flop should be prepared to explain why they would be willing to throw state government into turmoil — possibly jeopardizing Maine’s bond ratings as the state prepares to borrow to repay hospitals and fund overdue public works projects. LePage’s assertion at Dirigo Girls State that a state shutdown would be better than the proposed two-year budget is absurd.
Citing opposition to raising taxes won’t wash. LePage’s inclusion in his budget of proposals to suspend municipal revenue sharing and indexing income tax brackets to inflation effectively constitute tax increases. It’s political demagoguery or delusional to suggest otherwise.
The Legislature’s compromise budget is far from perfect, but it’s also far less regressive than what LePage originally proposed. Rather than relying heavily on property taxpayers to underwrite income tax cuts that took effect this year, as LePage’s budget proposed, the Appropriations Committee’s plan more fairly spreads responsibility by temporarily increasing sales, meals and lodging taxes to fill the state revenue gap created by the income tax cuts.
The proposed meals-and-lodging tax hike from 7 percent to 8 percent helps balance the budget by asking a little more from visitors and people with enough disposable income to dine out. Maine’s meals-and-lodging tax would remain below the 9 percent charged by nearby New Hampshire and Vermont. That’s far less odious than asking property owners to choose between higher taxes on their homes or fewer services to protect them. Tourists interviewed while visiting Bar Harbor earlier this month said they don’t factor tax rates into their destination decisions.
The temporary sales tax increase from 5 percent to 5.5 percent enlists all Mainers in the task of balancing the budget. Even welfare recipients, who rank near the top of LePage’s list of scapegoats for state government’s fiscal bind, pay sales taxes.
Timing, logic and fairness dictate that Maine lawmakers stand firm and resist any attempt to sabotage a budget that’s already won two-thirds support.