AUGUSTA – The Maine House of Representatives dealt another blow to Gov. Paul LePage’s crusade to get rid of Maine’s income tax Monday, voting along party lines to reject a constitutional amendment to eliminate the tax by 2020.

The bill, drafted by LePage and sponsored by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport, was defeated after a lengthy debate that illustrated the vast divide between Democrats and Republicans on the tax issue.

LePage has been campaigning to eliminate the state income tax, which generates about $1.7 billion in annual revenue, since he introduced his state budget proposal in January. The budget incorporated a major overhaul of the state’s tax system, including a steady reduction in the income tax – with an eye to eventually eliminating it entirely.

But lawmakers on the budget-writing committee balked at the plan, and when it became clear that the tax overhaul was not going to pass, LePage introduced a bill to hold a statewide referendum on eliminating the tax through a constitutional amendment. That measure, which the House rejected Monday, would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature and a simple majority vote at referendum to become law.

House Republicans have stood with the governor on the proposal, casting it as a chance for Maine residents to have a voice in how they are taxed.

“I believe people should have a choice. This debate should be brought to the public square,” said Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, the assistant House minority leader.

Democrats, however, dismissed the bill as reckless because it would create a massive budget hole that would lead to crippling cuts or increases in other taxes, such as property taxes.

“If Maine people want to vote on taxes, they don’t need our permission,” said Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, the House chair on the Taxation Committee, referring to past statewide votes on tax-related policy. “I have yet to see a plan that does not lead to cuts in education and health care or increases in property taxes or sales taxes.”

The cuts are at the center of an intra-party divide between House and Senate Republicans as they work to find common ground on a budget.

Asked to comment on Monday’s vote, LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said, “Why are Democrats so afraid to let the people of Maine have a voice?”

House Republicans, with the full understanding that the vote was not going to go their way, struck a similarly populist tone during Monday’s floor debate.

“This is not about eliminating the income tax,” said Rep. Karl Ward, R-Dedham. “It’s about putting it before the people.”

Republicans will almost certainly use the vote during the 2016 election to criticize Democrats for cutting Mainers out of the policy discussion. LePage even said last week that if the Legislature fails to enact income tax cuts, he’ll lead a citizens’ initiative to put it on the ballot.

But Democrats, including Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, said Mainers have voted multiple times already.

“The last time, they voted 60 percent to 40 percent,” she said, referring to a 2009 vote that rejected a so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights that would have required Maine voters to approve any future tax increases. “So why this body would even consider going against the will of the people is beyond me.”

Russell said the constitutional amendment to eliminate the income tax creates a $1.8 billion hole in the state’s approximately $6.5 billion two-year budget. She said the only way to make that gap up is to increase sales or income taxes or to make deep cuts.

Russell referenced a list of potential cuts offered by LePage last week, including cuts to the Drugs for the Elderly program, Head Start and, “the office of victim services, ’cause that’s a good idea.”

Some Republicans said they would entertain a sales tax increase if the income tax were eliminated, a departure from traditional Republican beliefs.

Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, said if people have more money in their pockets, “they don’t put it under a mattress. They spend it.”

Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, said a sales tax increase would allow Maine to collect more from the 32 million tourists that flood the state every year.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell