The crowd at Gov. Paul LePage’s budget town hall in Skowhegan last week was small but their message rang out: They do not want a property tax shift to local communities.

A particularly telling moment came when a resident asked the governor about his elimination of the Homestead Exemption for non-seniors. LePage dodged the question, and the resident pressed him, asking, “Wouldn’t this amount to a property tax increase that harms families?” Finally, the governor responded that, yes, he is shifting taxes to the municipalities that will have to be the ones to make the hard choices.

In the years that I’ve represented my community in the Maine House, I’ve heard how folks are hardest hit by property taxes. They want them to stay down and they don’t want state government to keep kicking the can down to local communities to the detriment of police, firefighting and snowplowing services, schools, seniors who want to stay in their homes and young families like mine that are trying to build their lives in rural Maine.

We can and should do better. I’m pleased to say that Democrats have a plan: a Better Deal for Maine.

I thank LePage for starting the conversation and bringing forward some bold ideas, but I continue to have concerns about how his plan falls short for Skowhegan, Madison and other towns in Somerset County. The Better Deal addresses those shortcomings — especially when it comes to property taxpayers — while borrowing aspects that do work for rural Maine.

The Better Deal increases revenue sharing to $80 million, recognizing that this longstanding partnership allows local communities to provide vital services while keeping property taxes in check. The governor plans to flat-fund it in the first year of his budget before eliminating it altogether. That would leave us with higher property taxes and fewer services to show for it.

LePage’s revenue sharing plan hits rural Maine particularly hard. It attempts to offset some of the loss by forcing nonprofits with properties worth more than $500,000 to start paying property taxes. About 90 percent of Maine’s 400 communities don’t have nonprofits of this size to tax, according to the Maine Municipal Association. When rural areas have that sort of nonprofit, it’s often — as is the case in Skowhegan — a hospital that is an important employer for the area where jobs can’t be taken for granted. Do we really want to financially squeeze these key employers along with homes for the elderly, food banks and other charities?

While the governor proposes doubling the Homestead Exemption for seniors and eliminating it for everyone else, the Better Deal recognizes it provides important relief not just for the elderly on fixed incomes but also for young families, parents trying to send their kids to college and all Maine resident homeowners. Our plan doubles it for everyone — a move that goes further in rural Maine than in the state’s cities because of property valuations. In all, our plan puts $120 million into direct property tax relief, including more than $57 million into the Property Tax Fairness Credit for low- and middle-income families.

Education is another area where the plans diverge. The Better Deal recognizes the importance of investing in our future. It puts an additional $20 million in K-12 funding each year and is fully paid for.

The governor’s tax breaks for large corporations and the wealthiest among us create a future $300 million budget hole for taxpayers, communities and policymakers to grapple with. Education accounts for about half of the state budget and that’s where the cuts will hit. Rural communities will be disproportionately affected because of the way the school funding formula works.

The Democratic Better Deal puts more money in the pockets of Mainers. It rejects trickle-down economics. LePage’s plan, for example, gives 50 percent of income tax cuts to the top 10 percent while the Better Deal directs 98 percent of income tax relief to the bottom 95 percent. Our plan is about growing the economy from the middle out — whether you’re in urban, suburban or rural Maine.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is the House majority leader. He is serving his fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives.

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