AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage proposed legislation Tuesday that would ask voters whether they want tax relief in requiring $100 million in state spending cuts.
The bill does not identify where cuts would be made, nor did LePage offer any specifics in a statement he released with the proposal. The bill echoes comments the governor made in his State of the State speech last month, when he promised to take the issue of state spending and taxes to the voters.
Democrats and LePage’s opponents in November’s election called the proposal an election-year stunt, saying the governor can propose spending cuts and tax reform through the budget process.
Under the governor’s bill, voters would be asked in an advisory referendum in June whether they favor “lowering income tax rates, implementing taxes and reducing overall tax revenues and government spending by at least $100 million in order to make Maine more economically competitive and improve the job creation environment.”
If voters said yes, LePage would direct his finance chief to include unspecified tax and spending cuts in the next biennial budget totaling $100 million, about 1.7 percent of the budget.
While a governor already can propose tax and spending cuts in a proposed budget, LePage’s bill would give his propsal the backing of voters.
In his State of the State address on Feb. 4, LePage said it should be up to voters to decide if they want lower taxes and less government spending.
“Let’s stop arguing about tax reform,” he said. “Let’s ask the people who really matter. Let’s ask Maine’s hardworking taxpayers.”
In a statement issued Tuesday, LePage said, “We think Mainers want tax relief. Instead of letting liberal politicians determine how much Mainers will pay in taxes, let’s give them the option to decide for themselves.”
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Anne Haskell of Portland said in a prepared statement that the governor has decided not to participate in the ongoing process of balancing the current budget. LePage has said he won’t take part because the Legislature’s decision to reject his proposed budget last year.
“This bill is a hollow attempt to be relevant in our state’s budget process,” Haskell said. “The budget-writing committee is working day and night to craft a budget that will work for our state and Gov. LePage could have put this idea forth for the Appropriations Committee. But instead, he has chosen to be missing from this process and abdicate his responsibility.”
Both of LePage’s opponents in the governor’s race sharply criticized the idea of a referendum.
“Gov. LePage has already created a crisis in Maine by pushing tax cuts that he didn’t pay for and now he’s turning a blind eye to the consequences,” Democrat Mike Michaud said in a statement. “This proposal would make it even worse. If the governor is really serious about cutting taxes he should get back to work now and propose a supplemental budget that includes how he would pay for his ideas. Instead, he refuses to do the job he was elected to do.”
Independent Eliot Cutler called the proposal “another leadership failure.”
“This bill has no chance of winning approval in the Legislature, so it amounts to simply another campaign gimmick by a guy who claims he’s not campaigning,” Cutler said. “If the governor were a good chief executive – managing and not campaigning – he’d stop retreating from his responsibility as governor and put forth a budget that would show clearly where he’d reduce spending by $100 million and how he’d reform taxes to lift some of the burden off the backs of Maine taxpayers. He hasn’t, and he won’t.”
In 2013, LePage proposed a $6.3 billion budget with a two-year, $200 million cut in aid to municipalities. The proposal was designed to protect and pay for a $400 million tax cut package passed in 2011. It was rejected by a coalition of majority Democrats and several Republican lawmakers who crafted an alternative budget that included temporary increases in the sales tax and spending reductions to pay for the 2011 tax cuts. Lawmakers said the governor’s cut in municipal aid would shift the tax burden to municipalities, which would have to raise property taxes or slash services.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states rarely use the advisory referendum, in part because the results are nonbinding.
In 2002, Rhode Island held an advisory referendum that asked votes whether they wanted to change the state constitution to make all three branches of government co-equal. Seventy-six percent of the voters supported the measure, but it was nonbinding and later rejected by the Democratic-controlled Rhode Island Assembly. Critics of the bill said it was Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond’s attempt to use a slanted referendum question to shift power from an assembly typically controlled by Democrats to the executive branch.
Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, the lead sponsor of LePage’s bill, L.D. 1813, and a member of the Taxation Committee, acknowledged that the bill faces an uphill fight in the Legislature. It needs a two-thirds majority to get on the ballot in June.
“I like the idea of this going to referendum,” he said. “I hope that we finally get some sense of what people really want. I think most people would gladly support lower taxes and smaller government.”
Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: