AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that the Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s taxation committee should resign for his work on a 2016 ballot initiative that added a new tax on high-income earners to fund education.
It came after the Maine Republican Party issued a news release accusing Rep. Ryan Tipping of Orono of a “major conflict of interest” for working on that campaign and leading the committee that will consider proposed changes to law this year.
However, Tipping dismissed it as “a baseless attack” in a Tuesday statement. He also cleared the job before taking it with the state’s ethics watchdog, which said he could accept the work within the Legislature’s conflict of interest standards.
Tipping was paid $9,000 by Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, a committee funded by progressive groups including the National Education Association as part of the $3.8 million effort behind Question 2, which passed in November 2016 and placed a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to increase school funding.
Business interests including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce opposed the question, but they only mounted a $500,000 campaign against the proposal.
Now the chamber is part of a coalition urging the Legislature to repeal the voter-approved law, which is being proposed in a bill from Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, that Tipping’s committee soon will consider.
That made the Maine Republican Party jump Tuesday, saying Tipping should lose his leadership post over the payments or recuse himself from debate on the issue.
In the party’s news release, Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas said Tipping shouldn’t lead “a committee of jurisdiction whose singular most important issue this legislative session is one he has already been paid to support.”
But the governor went further in an interview with WVOM on Tuesday, saying Tipping should resign and calling his move “the utmost corruption.”
“Shame on him,” LePage said.
In response to the governor, Tipping said in a statement that he wouldn’t apologize for taking the job and that his work was cleared by the Maine Ethics Commission.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, confirmed that Tipping reached out to his agency in May 2016, saying it advised that Tipping could accept the work under the Legislature’s conflict of interest standards as long as the committee didn’t offer it to him to influence his legislative duties.
Wayne also noted that Maine ethics law leaves it largely within a lawmaker’s discretion to recuse themselves, saying it “seems unlikely” that the work “would require him to recuse himself from legislation relating to taxation or education funding.”
“This is a baseless attack meant to distract from the fact that the GOP is desperate to repeal the referendum question that would finally fund our schools at the appropriate level,” Tipping said in a statement.