Gov. Paul LePage is strangling local government, starving it of oxygen. It’s astonishing that a man who served as mayor of Waterville has such disdain for the most efficient and effective level of government in our state.
Maine’s cities and towns are being punished, pushed to the edge, abandoned and disrespected, along with local property taxpayers. If your property taxes went up this year, you can thank the man in the Blaine House. Give him another four years and you may not be able to afford to live in your own house.
You don’t have to take my word for any of this. An analysis of the governor’s regular and supplemental budgets in January of 2013, by the Maine Municipal Association, reported that “the proposed budgets either completely break or seriously violate nearly every significant financial agreement that has been struck over the last 80-plus years.”
The list of broken promises is lengthy, including the motor vehicle excise tax system established in 1929, the municipal revenue sharing system established in 1972, the circuit breaker property tax relief program established in 1987, the 55 percent education funding initiative established by voters in 2004, and the business equipment tax exemption system established in 2008.
For decades we have recognized we’re too reliant on the property tax, but the governor proposed to completely eliminate the distribution of municipal revenue sharing beginning in July of 2013. He called revenue sharing “welfare for towns and cities.” Revenue sharing gives you back some of your state tax money for the local services you need and desire. I can’t for the life of me understand how LePage can consider this welfare — but we know he has a very broad definition of that term!
In 2013, 21 percent of total tax revenue came from the sales tax, 34 percent from the income tax, and a whopping 45 percent from the property tax. Our tax system is way out of balance and the governor’s actions are making it worse.
He also proposed to flat fund our local schools, already 10 percent below the mark we voters established, and to severely restrict state support for general assistance provided by the towns for our poorest citizens.
I’m especially disappointed by his effort to wipe out the homestead property tax exemption for those below the age of 65 years. About 200,000 of us would have lost the exemption. This modest program subtracts $10,000 from the assessed value of the primary home of all Mainers. To give you a comparison, Florida, where the governor’s wife owns a home, provides a $50,000 homestead exemption.
The governor also tried to eliminate the circuit breaker property tax and rent relief program for everyone under the age of 65. He even tried to steal motor vehicle excise taxes from the towns. And he just about eliminated MaineCare funding for schools. He also tried to take nearly $3 billion of taxable industrial personal property enrolled in the BETR program and make it tax exempt.
Before you vote, you ought to read the entire 2014 Municipal Priorities Paper by the Maine Municipal Association (put the report’s title in the search box at MMA’s website, www.memun.org). It’s an indictment of the governor as well as the Legislature. The Legislature, thankfully, rejected some of the governor’s proposals and watered down others. But the governor got a lot of what he wanted. More of his cuts are scheduled for 2015.
LePage sharply decreased the revenues of local government, and then reduced or took away the programs that help Mainers cope with punishingly high property taxes. The impacts have been severe all over the state, and not just in higher property taxes.
I’ll admit I am biased here in favor of local government. I’ve served in nearly every local office, including town council, selectmen, planning and appeals boards, and comprehensive planning committee, though I’ve avoided the toughest job of all: school board. And my favorite job has been library trustee, a position I’ve enjoyed for 34 years.
That’s why I nearly cried when I read Bob Keyes’ story about rural libraries in the Sept. 28 Sunday Telegram. Many rural libraries are closing, cutting back, buying less books, unable to provide the technology that patrons now seek and need, having lost the financial support of their town governments, which have been reeling from the governor’s punches and having to make very tough spending decisions. Recent closures, according to Keyes, include libraries in Buxton, Otis and North Monmouth.
The best and most responsive government is the one closest to you and your home — right there in your city or town. It’s a pity the governor has forgotten this.