Fight to stifle Maine’s voter-approved school aid surtax intensifies

Good morning from Augusta, where the fight over Maine’s voter-approved surtax to support public schools begins today in earnest.

Opponents of the measure, which squeaked by to passage as a citizen-initiated referendum in November 2016, have painted a dire picture of its impact since then. Among their arguments is that as it stands now, the surtax would force some Mainers to pay the highest tax rates in the nation at 10.15 percent for individuals and small businesses that make over $200,000 a year.

Led by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, opponents say that would lead to an exodus of entrepreneurs, doctors and dentists while also blocking efforts to improve the economy.

Educators and others have blasted that notion and continued with the message that constituted their battle cry throughout 2016: Maine schools are chronically underfunded and the estimated $157 million a year the surtax would create can be used to better prepare Maine students for careers in the future — which they say is the golden ticket for long-term prosperity in Maine.

There are several bills being introduced in the Legislature’s Taxation Committee this afternoon on both sides of the issue. The bill titles and their sponsors tell a lot of the story here:

  • LD 291, An Act to Maintain the Income Tax Rate on Persons with Taxable Income above $200,000, sponsored by Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington
  • LD 337, An Act to Protect Maine Jobs and the Maine Economy by Eliminating the 3 percent Income Tax Surcharge Imposed on Certain Mainers and the Fund to Advance Public Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, sponsored by Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan
  • LD 571, An Act to Eliminate the 3 percent Surcharge on Certain Income and Provide and Alternative Funding Source for the Fund to Advance Public Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, sponsored by Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro
  • LD 829, An Act to Provide Income Tax Relief for Maine Small Business by Increasing the Income Tax Surcharge Threshold, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham
  • LD 851, An Act to Repeal and Subject to Referendum in 2018 the Fund to Advance Public Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education and the 3 percent Income Tax Surcharge, sponsored by Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough

There’s likely to be a packed house for today’s hearings and these bills will likely be under consideration for weeks. Lawmakers will walk a very fine line between honoring the will of Maine voters — or at least half of them — and weighing the merits of the additional funding for education and its source.

This issue is also front and center for LePage, who is blasting the surtax whenever he has the chance. Also, the hearing will be co-chaired by Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, who the governor urged to resign and Republicans have assailed over paid work on the Question 2 campaign.

With the partisan divide as clear as ever here, this could be the issue — along with LePage’s proposal to reduce the overall income tax rate in Maine that lawmakers are still fighting over at 2 a.m. in late June, with a state government shutdown looming. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • LePage was in Massachusetts to address a conservative group this weekend. He got protested. The governor went to Stoneham on Sunday for a meeting of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, a group that calls itself “the Republican wing of the Republican Party” and has fought more moderate party figures such as Gov. Charlie Baker in the liberal state. There was no press coverage of the event, but LePage was pictured giving a speech and was protested by local progressives. The Massachusetts Republican Assembly didn’t seem to mind, posting a picture of protesters on Facebook and saying, “You know you made the right choice of speaker when the left shows up to protest it!” — Michael Shepherd
  • Maine lawmaker named to regional education panel. Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford, has been named to serve on the Commission of Higher Education and Employability, which is a subcommittee of the New England Board of Higher Education. The purpose of the board is to develop recommendations that will improve career readiness of college graduates in New England. Stearns, a retired educator, is serving his second term in the Legislature. He served on the Education Committee for the past two years but was moved by legislative leaders to the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee this year. — Christopher Cousins
  • Angus King introduces bill to attract new loggers. Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King has announced he will co-sponsor a bill that echoes one being introduced in the House by Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. The Future Logging Career Act would allow people as young as 16 years old to begin working in the woods, as long as they are accompanied by their parents or family members. The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, which supports the legislation, has said that virtually all of Maine’s logging operations are family businesses. — Christopher Cousins
  • Hearings on Supreme Court nominee begin. A U.S. Senate committee will begin deliberations today on Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill a more than year-long vacancy on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch is expected to spend at least three days this week fielding questions about his background and judicial philosophy. Opponents will portray him as too conservative or pro-business, while supporters will argue that he would be a worthy originalist successor to Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last year, creating the vacancy. King and Collins have met with Gorsuch since his nomination, but neither has taken a position on his qualifications for the high court. With 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, Collins, who might be troubled if Gorsuch hews to a staunch anti-abortion agenda, and King, who caucuses with minority Democrats, could factor heavily into the nomination process if, as expected, it moves beyond the committee level. — Robert Long

Today in A-town

It’s mining bill day in Augusta. The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony on seven bills on mining in Maine, a cause that has stalled since LePage and legislative Republicans made changes to mining laws in 2012 in an aim to allow mining at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

Different sets of rules drafted by the Maine Board of Environmental Protection have been blocked by legislative Democrats ever since and have been regularly assailed by environmentalists as “weak.”

On Monday, the Natural Resources Council of Maine will oppose a bill to enact the current set of rules, while they’re backing a bill from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, that would amend the law to require stricter standards against pollution. Carson, who was elected to the Senate last year, served for more than two decades as executive director of the NRCM.

The divided Legislature could lead this fight to another stalemate, but Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, is a big mining supporter who sponsored the 2012 bill, signaling that this conflict could be more than a standard party-line tussle.

Four bills in the Republican-led fight to tighten the referendum process are also up for public hearings today. The five citizen initiatives on the 2016 ballot have prompted new challenges to the process. Four of those will face public hearings before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee today.

  • Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, wants to require the full text of an initiative to be printed on the ballot and make people collecting qualifying signatures for referendum questions give a copy of the bill to the person before they sign.
  • Rep. Harold “Trey” Stewart, R-Presque Isle, would extend the current signature requirement of 10 percent of Maine voters who cast a ballot in the past gubernatorial election to 10 percent in each county.
  • Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, is attempting to dissuade professional signature-gathering by requiring a minimum per-signature payment of $25 for paid collectors.

There are other hearings in the education and Health and Human Services committees, including one from Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, that would mandate a 30-minute school lunch period unless a school district finds that it would be “impracticable.” Here’s your soundtrack— Michael Shepherd

Reading list

4 a.m. questions from my son that make no sense at all

Over the weekend, I traveled with my son and the local Boy Scout troop to Quincy, Mass., for an overnight adventure on the World War II-era USS Salem. It was my third time sleeping aboard a World War II ship with the scouts, and those three nights rank among the worst nights of sleep I’ve ever had.

It’s an “authentic” experience, in that we “sleep” on the same pieces of canvas stretched between aluminum frames as the sailors did. I laid in my bunk for at least a couple of hours listening to the guy next to me snoring and the creaks, knocks and whirs of the heating system cycling on and off.

Sometime around 2 a.m. I woke to a tap on my shoulder. It was my son, who was sleep-walking as he occasionally does. When he does this, his eyes are open but his brain is in another place. Once I got him talking I managed to extract that he was cold. I’ll do just about anything for my boy so I gave him my sleeping bag to put over himself in his own sleeping bag. He fell back asleep by I laid there on a 60-year-old strip of stretched canvas and my coat over my shoulders for another couple of hours.

Just as I dozed off again, there was another tap on my shoulder. It was my boy again, sleepwalking again. I’m so glad he comes to me when he does that instead of venturing through the maze of the ship.

“What is it, buddy?” I asked.

“Um, daddy when you went sailing did you have a boat?” I’ve been sailing only once and it was on a sunset cruise in Bar Harbor.

“Are you sleepwalking again? Are you dreaming?”

“I don’t know if I’m sleepwalking or dreaming, but I’ll go back to bed.” He didn’t remember any of it in the morning.

As I struggled to fall asleep again, I had a song echoing through my head, and it’s not one of my favorites. Nevertheless, it was my soundtrack until 7 a.m. reveille, when the ship’s mass-production coffee was about the best coffee I’ve ever had. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.