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New Maine taxes on ‘amusements’ proposed to fill budget hole

Adam Goode
John Clarke Russ | BDN
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Posted Nov. 25, 2013, at 5:49 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 26, 2013, at 9:35 a.m.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Starting next summer, Mainers could pay a new 5.5 percent tax on ski lift tickets, cinema admissions, haircuts and time in the tanning booth.

On Monday, the Tax Expenditure Review Task Force put those proposals on a tentative list of changes to the state’s tax system that ultimately will be reviewed by the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Because of a tight fiscal environment, the state’s 2014-2015 budget included a placeholder that mandated $40 million in savings be identified by the end of this year and realized in the second year of the two-year budget that covers July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2015.

If the Legislature doesn’t find $40 million by limiting tax deductions and credits or removing exemptions, the money will be taken out of municipal revenue sharing, which already was slashed by nearly one-third in June.

Given that savings must be found, committee members said it made sense to target discretionary spending on recreation — especially services that often hit tourists as much as they hit Mainers. Most services have never been taxed.

A new tax on “amusements,” as defined by the committee, could bring $20 million in revenue to the state annually. It would affect admission fees to concerts, movies, amusement parks, festivals and zoos. It also would affect fees for sporting and outdoor activities such as golf and skiing, as well as scenic and sightseeing excursions.

“Amusement comes right to the very top of my list,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, co-chairman of the committee. “I don’t find any good reason to continue its exemption.”

The service tax on amusements would not affect agricultural fairs, school events or proceeds of events that will be used for charity.

The committee also recommends a tax on “personal care services,” including skin care, exercise, massage and spa treatments as well as the services offered by hairdressers and barbers. It does not include any service by providers licensed to write prescriptions.

That tax could bring in roughly another $20 million.

While those two proposals alone could hit the $40 million mark — at least according to rough numbers provided at Monday’s meeting — task force members wanted to include other proposals so that the Appropriations Committee would have some wiggle room.

The task force also proposed a new tax on basic cable and satellite TV services, courier services and limousine rentals.

Additionally, cuts were suggested to a handful of tax expenditure programs. The panel suggested limiting or eliminating participation by retail companies in the Business Equipment Tax Refund program and reductions to the Pine Tree Zone, research expense and high-tech investment tax credits.

But support for those plans was less than unanimous.

Merrill Barter, a Portland-based accountant who represents the business sector on the task force, said cutting those programs “sends a terrible message” to businesses in Maine. He also said that many companies had invested under the assumption they would receive credit for doing so.

“To me, it’s an issue of fairness,” Barter said.

Other committee members worried that some small businesses may depend on those programs to stay open or that the task force did not have enough information about the tax expenditure in question to make a decision.

Others said that given the task force’s charge and painful cuts already made to the circuit-breaker program and municipal revenue sharing, which many say are responsible for increased property tax rates, businesses cannot be spared.

The task force is scheduled to meet at least one more time before finishing its proposal. But the stage is already set for a fight in the State House.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said in a release earlier this month that he would not support any new taxes created by the group.

“There were parts of the budget that Republicans disagreed with, and this is one of those parts,” said Fredette, who voted for the budget amid concerns that a stalemate would force a state government shutdown. “Now that we don’t have the prospect of a government shutdown staring us in the face, we can take the time to find better solutions to Maine’s fiscal problems.

Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, who is co-chairman of the task force with Haskell, said ending deductions and creating new taxes wasn’t anybody’s ideal plan but it is what his group was charged to do in order to avoid more cuts to revenue sharing.

“This isn’t easy stuff for anybody,” Goode said Monday. “But it’s better than the alternative.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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