Years ago, I met with new Republican Senate leaders, who had just taken control of the chamber after 12 years in the minority.

The Senate president was Jeffrey Butland, a Newt Gingrich-style campaigner in 1994, who embodied the new, no-holds-barred tactics many Republicans have embraced ever since. The majority leader was Leo Kieffer, a more traditional Republican from Caribou.

We discussed taxes, and Butland vowed to cut business taxes to make Maine more competitive. I demurred, saying that the corporate income tax, based on profits, rarely affected business location decisions.

Kieffer agreed, and said, “When we paid more in taxes, it meant we had a pretty good year.” I’ve never forgotten the dagger look Butland flashed at his second-in-command.

But Kieffer spoke the truth. If you want a tax system based on what people can afford, you have to tax those who are financially successful, both companies and individuals. When Republicans drove the sweeping Reagan tax cuts through Congress in 1981, they turned this principle on its head.

Ever since, any effort to base taxes on ability to pay is condemned as “punishing success” and “damaging the economy.” Instead we hear, as a congressional staffer once put it, about “all the great things that will occur if the rich don’t have to pay taxes.”

This is the relevant backdrop to the current furor over Question 2, and the supposedly terrible things that will happen if the highest income Mainers see their taxes increased.

The alleged harmful effects — on business formation, population growth, prosperity — are utterly speculative and unproven. That’s not what you’ve been hearing from business leaders and State House Republicans.

But consider: Maine didn’t always have a stagnant economy and a shrinking population. The two decades when Maine was most prosperous — with a net inflow of young people — were the 1970s and ’80s, when taxes were higher than today, and Maine’s population actually grew faster than the nation’s.

This may not prove that higher state taxes are good for the economy and, particularly, for those earning less, but it should provide a reality check on insistent voices like Gov. Paul LePage; his tax cuts to date have done nothing to restore prosperity.

The voters, in referendums over four decades, have been remarkably consistent about taxing and spending. It began with passage of the income tax in 1969, advocated by Democratic Gov. Ken Curtis and enacted by a Republican Legislature — yes, Republicans.

Curtis then nearly lost his re-election bid in 1970, before the income tax took effect and when predictions of disaster abounded. Yet when business interests got income tax repeal on the ballot in 1971, voters rejected it by an astounding 3-1 margin.

This led Sen. Ed Muskie to joke with Curtis that the income tax was more popular than he was. The more likely explanation, Curtis responded, was that people saw the tax doing exactly what it was supposed to, shifting the tax burden away from working Mainers, and the property tax.

Voters haven’t changed their minds since. The principal reason for the income tax was funding schools, and while funding increased, the state never reached its 55 percent goal.

In 2004, voters directed the Legislature to fulfill that commitment. In 2016 they provided funding through the personal income tax. Meanwhile, they twice rejected attempts to cap spending at the municipal level, the so-called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights.”

It should be crystal clear that voters strongly support public education, want adequate funding, and don’t want increased property taxes — the net result of the LePage-era tax cuts. Similarly, they don’t want to gut the rest of the state budget to avoid taxing the well-off.

Nonetheless, legislators are nervous; there hasn’t been a major state tax increase since 1991. Senate President Mike Thibodeau publicly worries about Maine having a 10.15 percent top rate while Massachusetts has a flat rate of 5.1 percent.

That situation probably won’t last long. Just as Maine was considering its school funding referendum, Massachusetts began a similar venture — but there it takes three years to get a question on the ballot. In 2018, Massachusetts will consider a top rate of 9 percent. Since its Legislature has already endorsed the measure, 135-57, it will likely be approved.

In our era of massive income inequality, more states may follow Maine’s lead, simply because it’s the best way to raise money needed to adequately fund state and local programs.

Lawmakers must get over their discomfort and listen to the voters. If they do, we may be able to finally get tax policy off the ballot, and back into the legislative debate, where it belongs.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His first book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]


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