‘NH envy’ motivates neighboring Maine lawmakers

Posted May 22, 2011, at 1:23 p.m.
Last modified May 22, 2011, at 5:30 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine may have just turned red, politically speaking, but color it green — green with envy for its only American neighbor, New Hampshire.

Unlike any of the lower 48 states, Maine has only one other neighboring state to compare itself with, feud with, compete with, and sometimes even cooperate with.

Feelings engendered by the unique two-state tie extend away from the capitals. Each state thinks it has better ski slopes, more colorful autumn leaves, better university hockey teams and superior maple syrup.

On the Down East side of the border, the rivalry manifests itself in numerous ways in the State House, where legislation hinting at how the Granite State does things shows up in issues from liquor, cigarettes and fireworks to taxes and text messaging.

The latest reference came during a recent, heated debate over a health insurance overhaul bill in Maine, when Sen. Joseph Brannigan spoke of “New Hampshire envy” that permeates the State House time and again.

“We’re always comparing to New Hampshire,” Brannigan, D-Portland, said when talking about Maine trying to bring its individual and small group health insurance policies more in line with you-know-who.

Brannigan, who opposed the insurance bill that ultimately was enacted, said it’s not the first time he’s seen New Hampshire envy take hold in his three decades in the Legislature. It’s almost as if the newly red state of Maine — which in November elected its first Republican governor in 16 years and a GOP legislative majority for the first time in three decades — is trying harder to fit into an image created by its neighbor’s “Live Free or Die” motto.

“There’s a great temptation for our people not only to envy them, but emulate them,” Brannigan mused days after the insurance vote. He sees a tendency in Maine to try to copy New Hampshire’s policy to help its businesses snatch up as many cross-border customers as they can from neighboring states, which also include Massachusetts and Vermont.

That’s exactly what happens, said Republican Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick. Much of the reason is Maine’s 5 percent sales tax, compared to none in New Hampshire, a difference that sends shoppers scampering to malls and mom-and-pops in the shadows of the White Mountains.

Then there’s the income tax; New Hampshire has none, Maine is struggling to lower its tax.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to do business because of the tax burdens,” said O’Connor. “It hits particularly hard in my district.”

The latter theme has been grasped by Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a pro-business Republican who wants to overhaul what he considers overly restrictive regulations. LePage, not one to mince words, made the point in a weekly radio address in April.

Calling New Hampshire a “more welcoming place for commerce,” LePage said its gross domestic product is 20 percent larger than Maine’s even though the two states have roughly the same population, 1.3 million. New Hampshire’s household incomes are also higher.

“It will take hard work, but we can put Maine on a footing where we can compete with New Hampshire and the world,” LePage said.

Mainers have some reason to be envious.

New Hampshire’s April unemployment rate was the lowest in New England at 4.9 percent, while Maine’s was 7.6 percent. When it comes to wages, New Hampshire residents earn about $7,000 more on average than their neighbors in Maine, which ranks as the poorest state in New England when it comes to personal income.

But things get murky when it comes to taxes.

It’s true that New Hampshire’s taxes are lower, but the differences between the states are not as dramatic as some people may think, said Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie Institute of Public Service.

While the combined state and local taxes are similar, Maine’s overall tax burden is higher because of its lower wages, Colgan said.

New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro thinks it makes perfect sense for Maine to be envious of New Hampshire “because we get to the heart of the matter and look for solutions. In Maine, they get to the heart of the matter and look for problems.”

“We are an action-oriented society. I love Maine, but they should be more like New Hampshire,” said D’Allesandro, D-Manchester.

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch prefers to focus on issues where the two states have worked together, such as their combined efforts in 2005 to save the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard — a facility that bears a New Hampshire name but is located in Maine — from being shut down.

“That’s a good example of how the two states collaborated on something important to the two states,” said Lynch.

There are lots of other examples of where Mainers look to the south and west for direction.

When a bill came up in Augusta to raise the $2-per-pack cigarette tax by $1.50, opponents warned that that would send more purchasers to New Hampshire, which has a $1.78 tax and is looking at lowering it.

Maine proponents of a bill to ban text messaging also pointed across the border to New Hampshire and even Vermont, which have enacted texting-while-driving bans.

Supporters of a bill to allow fireworks sales in Maine reasoned that they’re already plentiful in Maine, thanks to all of the people who buy them legally in New Hampshire.

Then there are the bills to reduce the size of Maine’s 186-seat Legislature. While their backers see them as a way to save money and improve efficiency, opponents countered that Maine would be better if it was more like New Hampshire, which boasts the nation’s largest state legislature at 424 members.

New Hampshire lawmakers’ pay, $100 per year, may be where the envy stops; no one has proposed cutting Maine lawmakers’ pay to that level.

Associated Press writer Norma Love in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.

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