Next week’s election for an open Bangor seat in the Maine House of Representatives will pit a young Republican who backs the fiscal policies of former Gov. Paul LePage against a moderate Democrat who says he can be the voice of experience in the city’s legislative delegation.
The candidates, Democrat Joe Perry and Republican Thomas White, are running in a special election Tuesday to represent House District 124, which includes the easternmost neighborhoods of Bangor, including some of the tree streets, and a rural section of Orono.
The winner of the race will have to jump into the Legislature more than two months into its new session, as lawmakers start to seriously consider numerous proposals, including an $8 billion two-year spending plan from Gov. Janet Mills.
Both candidates said they haven’t yet studied Mills’ budget proposal closely, but Perry was more supportive of it.
He likes that it would increase from 2 to 3 percent the share of state income and sales tax revenue that flows to Maine towns and cities. That’s still shy of a 5 percent threshold that’s set in Maine law but that the Legislature hasn’t met for more than a decade.
“The last eight years have been murder on municipalities,” Perry, 52, said. “I wouldn’t expect she can jump from 2 to 5 percent [in this budget]. But by any measure, that starts to replace revenue taken away from towns and cities and is a great step forward for trying to get property taxes in line.”
There have been a number of calls from Democrats and allied groups to increase taxes on higher earners — something that Mills’ budget doesn’t propose. Perry said he could not say whether he would support such a hike. He said he would need to see how any such change fits within the larger tax code.
About a decade ago, Perry was a state senator when he helped lead an effort to shift a greater portion of the tax burden onto visitors by lowering Maine’s top income tax rate, applying the sales tax to more items and services, and raising taxes on lodging and meals. Baldacci signed the change into law in 2009, but voters later rejected it.
Now, with Democrats in control of the Blaine House and both legislative chambers, Perry made a plea for fiscal restraint, given that a recession could lead state tax revenues to shrink.
“When you’re in that position, you own every problem,” Perry said of the new Democratic control. “Your job is to come up with solutions. There is no going hog wild with your priorities. Although [Mills’] budget is balanced right now with no new taxes, after 12 years of expansion in this economy, history says it’s not going to last forever. A small change in the national economy has an exaggerated result in the state budget.”
Although White, 24, agreed that Bangor needs more financial help from the state, he opposed the 11 percent spending hike in Mills’ budget. He couldn’t name specific areas he would trim, but said the state will need to keep its costs in check.
“An 11 percent increase in two years is pretty big,” he said. “After what we’ve been doing the last eight years as a state keeping finances in check, the economy has been good, but I don’t want to see the state get into the position where we’re in financial trouble again. … We have to sit down and have an honest dialogue about what we need and can afford, and what do we want.”
White opposed any proposals to increase taxes on high earners, saying it could dissuade some younger professionals from staying in Maine.
“I would love to see us move to consumption-based taxes that give individuals more choice,” he said, referring to the sales tax. “That’s something I feel passionate about exploring.”
Perry, who owns Joe’s Market corner store on Garland Street, previously served four terms in the Maine House and three terms in the Senate, along with a recent term on the Bangor City Council. He said he’s running for state office again because three other longstanding Bangor Democratic lawmakers — two representatives and one senator — will be termed out after this Legislature.
“I think it’s good to have experience and continuity back in Augusta,” he said.
White now works for the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, an Eastern Maine Development Corp. program that helps small businesses across northern and eastern Maine apply for government contracts. He graduated from Maine Maritime Academy last year with a degree in international business and logistics.
He’s running for the Legislature with a couple broad goals, he said, including exploring how the state can adjust its sales tax to bring in more revenue from tourism, taking better advantage of hydroelectric power and allowing those pursuing higher education to incur less debt.
White also said he thinks he can work across the aisle and that his youth would help him bring fresh ideas to the Legislature. With a background in transportation logistics, he also said that he could help with efforts to improve the state’s shipping infrastructure.
The House District 124 seat has been open since late last year when its previous occupant, Aaron Frey, was selected to replace Gov. Janet Mills as the state’s attorney general. The district has leaned Democratic, giving Frey three terms in the State House and re-electing him last November with 63 percent of the vote.
Voting for the special election will be held from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and at the Orono Town Office upstairs in the council chambers. It will only be open to House District 124 residents.