On Wednesday, the Maine Legislature should override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the biennial budget proposal. By doing so, legislators would show that they stand by their agreement to compromise. They would also avoid a state shutdown, which would put state employees out of work, affect social services and harm those who need state licenses to operate businesses. Legislators would also be able to return to their hometowns and say they prevented greater increases in local property taxes, which will likely happen if an override fails and conservative Republicans demand more cuts.
The proposed $6.3 billion budget, approved unanimously by the Appropriations Committee, has frustrated those on both the right and left. It would enact temporary sales, meals and lodging tax increases — something House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport called a “bitter pill” in his June 23 BDN column. It would also preserve the income tax cuts passed by the 2011 Republican-led Legislature and retain 35 percent of the cuts to municipal revenue sharing originally proposed by LePage — problems for some Democrats.
But the budget did receive two-thirds support from the House and Senate to get to LePage’s desk. That’s because lawmakers recognized it for what it is: a concession for both parties. As Fredette also acknowledged in his piece: “In the end, budget-writing is a compromise.”
The veto allows the governor to claim that he rejected tax increases, but it continues to ignore the fact that his proposal simply shifts responsibility for tax increases to cities and towns. The current proposal also retains many components LePage wanted. While he didn’t get the extreme, $200 million cut to the state’s municipal revenue sharing program, the current proposal still slashes $75 million, which will cause towns to make up the difference by cutting their budgets or raising property taxes.
LePage wanted to make property located at a retail sales facility no longer eligible for tax relief through the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement or Business Equipment Tax Exemption programs, and the Legislature approved a task force to study the best way to merge the two programs. LePage also wanted school districts to partially fund their teacher pensions, and the Legislature approved a plan to shift half the cost of teacher retirements to towns at a later date.
The budget proposal addresses a buzz word for LePage — welfare — and takes advantage of savings identified by a task force that reviewed the general assistance safety net. LePage has complained that the proposal cuts too much from specific education programs, but overall it would require incremental increases in the state’s share of education funding until the state reaches its promised 55 percent level.
Though he hasn’t said yes or no, Fredette has signaled an openness to voting against LePage on the budget to keep state government running. The minority leader of the Senate, Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, however, congratulated LePage for vetoing the budget proposal — a questionable move considering the Legislature’s version is estimated to provide 64 percent more funding to Winterport than the budget desired by LePage. With Thibodeau opposed to an override, the focus will be on the Senate’s moderate Republicans, who will have to stand up not only to LePage but to their caucus leader.
We urge that group — including Pat Flood of Winthrop, Roger Katz of Augusta, Brian Langley of Ellsworth, Tom Saviello of Wilton and Roger Sherman of Houlton — to stay strong.
The Augusta area would be hard hit by a state shutdown, so no lawmaker from that region would benefit from siding with the governor and letting the veto stand. Representatives of Maine’s rim counties — which face less flexibility in their local budgets, with declining populations and revenue streams — would also be mistaken in standing with the governor. No area needs a failed override to result in a reworked budget that cuts more and translates to increased local property taxes, but rural areas with little economic growth would be particularly vulnerable.
LePage’s complaints about the Legislature’s negotiated budget don’t pass scrutiny. Lawmakers should not give in to his apparent desire for a crisis. Instead they should remember their constituents and vote to override.