Task force continues poring over Maine tax code in search of $40 million needed for state budget

Posted Sept. 30, 2013, at 4:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A task force of lawmakers, business interests, economists and tax experts continued Monday its work toward finding $40 million in savings by December, as required by the biennial budget the Democrat-led Legislature approved over the protests of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

If the Tax Expenditure Review Task Force cannot identify those savings, the $40 million hit will be passed on to municipalities in the form of further reductions to revenue sharing, which was already cut in the 2014-15 budget. Further revenue sharing cuts could result in increased property taxes.

The group was charged with finding the money somewhere within the state’s tangled web of tax expenditures in the tax code. Essentially, tax expenditures are money the state would normally raise through taxation that it relinquishes in the form of tax breaks, credits or exemption in an effort to meet some goal. Those goals can be broad, such as general economic development, or targeted, such as decreasing the burden of student debt through tax credits for loan payments.

Rep. Adam Goode, a Bangor Democrat who chairs the task force, has said the in-depth look at Maine’s tax breaks, credits and exemptions is long-coming.

“We simply can’t ask middle class families to pay more in property taxes, while continuing to turn a blind eye to billions in backdoor spending on tax breaks,” Goode said in a news release issued after the meeting. “It’s only fair that we know what we are getting for our money and who benefits.”

On Monday, the group heard from Beth Ashcroft, director of the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, on the different ways the task force could tackle the maze of exemptions — which account for somewhere between $1.1 billion and $6.6 billion, she said — in search for savings.

Ashcroft recommended the group first examine tax expenditures that benefit businesses and nonprofits. Of the roughly $205.6 million of revenue lost to income tax expenditures, more than $44 million comes from 23 programs that provide tax incentives for corporations, she said.

However, Ashcroft said starting with tax expenditures that benefit corporations doesn’t mean she thinks all $40 million should be taken from programs that benefit corporations. It’s simply that better data is available for those programs, she said.

Ashcroft also provided the panel with a list of 15 tax expenditure programs for which the rationale for the lost state revenue was unclear. Estimating conservatively, those programs are worth at least $9 million, she said.

The task force is also charged with coming up with a plan to routinely evaluate Maine’s tax expenditure programs. It heard from Jeff Chapman, a representative from Pew Charitable Trusts, which in 2012 issued a report that included Maine in a list of 25 states that were “trailing behind” in terms of regularly measuring the economic impact of tax expenditures.

Chapman gave examples of other states that had implemented schedules for evaluating spending programs and emphasized the importance of the evaluation process and using that process to drive policy.

“Most of the evaluations we highlight in our report aren’t directly connected to the policy-making process” — a mistake, he said. “If an evaluation just sits on the shelf and doesn’t get to the Legislature, it’s not really much use.”

The group asked George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, to attend the meeting, but he was unable to do so. He also did not send a surrogate, instead telling the panel it could submit questions to him in writing.

The group will meet again Oct. 31, when it will take public comment. One member, Lisa Miller, who represents the public on the task force, said the group would have to get its hands dirty, soon.

“Instead of just continuing to gather information, pretty soon we ought to start deciding,” she said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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