AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s $6.8 billion budget proposal was still being digested in the State House on Monday, but all signs were pointing toward the obvious: The Maine Legislature won’t let it pass the way it came.
The LePage administration devoted much of Monday to briefing legislators on the budget, which was released late Friday. The governor’s plan would shift Maine to a flat income tax by 2020 while broadening the sales tax base, cut welfare programs and reform the state’s education system.
After their briefings, Democrats were drawing early battle lines on education and health care funding with Republicans praising LePage’s tax roadmap, but reticent to discuss details with potential sticking points of their own, including the sales tax expansion.
House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said many elements in the budget have been “soundly rejected” by both parties in the past and turned her attention to a new budget “investing in Maine people.”
“I’m not sure why we’re seeing these same, tired proposals yet again,” she said.
Republicans were in a difficult spot on the budget on Monday, with LePage proposing a lighter version of his 2015 tax plan. That would have raised and broadened the sales tax to offset income tax cuts — a favorite policy goal of the governor’s.
Now, LePage is suggesting a flat income tax rate of 5.75 percent, to be partially offset by broadening the sales tax to include attractions and services such as lawn mowing, concerts, theaters, haircuts and salon treatments.
Republican opposition thwarted his sales tax proposals two years ago, and a similar realignment was rejected by Maine voters in 2010, even though voters passed a 2016 ballot question placing a 3 percent surtax on annual income over $200,000 to fund schools.
Senate Majority Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, praised LePage’s focus on income tax cuts, called that voter-approved question “a travesty” and said it should be repealed. But he demurred when asked how cuts should be balanced, saying, “You’re going to find out.”
Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, seemed open to some alteration of the sales tax base, saying Maine’s status as the nation’s oldest state may require it and “we’ll try our best to do it fairly.”
But it’s a conversation that Democrats aren’t keen on: Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, questioned the targets of sales tax expansion in the governor’s budget, noting that LePage also proposes to eliminate the estate tax for people dying after the beginning of 2018.
“I don’t know who those people are. They’re certainly not the ones that are worrying me,” he said. “So, to increase people’s taxes on snowplowing so 50 rich families in Maine can get a break? I’m not interested in that.”