AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican Party’s effort to lower income taxes and reform welfare won’t appear on Maine’s ballot in 2016, but a spokesman said Friday the party will push for a vote next year.
It was always a strong possibility that the GOP’s bid to get more than 61,000 signatures from Maine voters by Feb. 1 to qualify for this year’s ballot would fail, after the party announced the drive in September as perhaps the focal point of Gov. Paul LePage’s final-term agenda.
Jason Savage, the Maine Republican Party’s executive director, said the party collected “tens of thousands of signatures” during the drive, which will now continue in an effort to get the question on the 2017 ballot.
“We’ve been really successful, but we don’t want to leave anything to chance with everything being certified,” he said.
The party’s proposal would attempt to eliminate income taxes by bringing the tax rate down between 2018 and 2021 and using state liquor contract revenue to reduce it afterward. Also, it would place new restrictions on cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, food stamps and other benefits.
It comports with LePage’s political profile: Eliminating Maine’s income tax has been one prime policy goal for the Republican, and welfare reform has been a potent argument for him, especially since his 2014 re-election victory over Democrat Mike Michaud.
But the Legislature has foiled the governor on those goals, and the signature effort came in a period of detente between LePage and lawmakers — excluding minority House Republicans — that worsened after the budget vote and has heightened since this month’s failed effort to impeach him.
Since 2015, he has focused on town hall meetings and repeatedly said that he won’t be able to get important work done until a new Legislature is elected in November. The referendum proposal gave him a chance to similarly take his platform to voters, and in September, the Portland Press Herald uncovered digital evidence that the LePage administration helped draft it.
However, the drive started late, with the party only gaining approval to collect signatures just before Election Day in November. The party was ebullient about the effort at first, but Chairman Rick Bennett hedged as time went on, calling it a “daunting task” later in November.
Savage said the off-year election in 2017 will allow the party to “continue the discussion” around the proposal. This year brings presidential and congressional elections and several referendum campaigns, and he said the question will get more attention next year.
But Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a statement that “it should come as no surprise” that this year’s effort failed because much of it has been rejected by legislators.
“From the beginning, the GOP’s initiative has been about politics, not real solutions to the challenges facing Maine people,” he said.