Maine lawmakers take another look at value of giving tax breaks

Good morning from Augusta, where the Legislature’s Taxation Committee is buckling down this morning on a project that’s been in the works for years but will likely have trouble moving forward.

The committee convenes today for the second in what promises to be a series of meetings to consider whether so-called tax expenditures in Maine — which are composed of tax credits and deductions enjoyed by a range of businesses and individuals — should continue.

At the core of the project for many lawmakers is ensuring that the tax expenditures given result in enough return.

The debate now centers on Pine Tree Development Zones. That program provides a number of financial incentives to businesses that promise to create new, high-quality jobs in economically disadvantaged areas. But the program has been expanded over the years to include virtually the entire state. That has caused some to question whether it is fulfilling its intended goal of giving an advantage to rural, more economically depressed areas. Also under debate is whether the participating businesses have done what they promised. A recent report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found that they hadn’t.

The Pine Tree Development Zones question is a pressing one. The program begun under former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci is scheduled to expire at the end of 2018 unless it is extended by the Legislature. That means Pine Tree Development Zones, which are heralded as essential by the LePage administration and many economic development professionals, could end up being one of the major issues decided when the Legislature returns to session in January. OPEGA, which has already shared its findings with the Government Oversight Committee, will present its report to Taxation Committee this morning.

That’s not all. The committee is also scheduled to review new markets tax credits and various other expenditures. The committee is working toward making recommendations for the Legislature when it returns in January. Listen in, if you’d like, by clicking here. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.

Reading list

  • Gov. Paul LePage is fading from public view as his second term draws to close. His former schedule of town hall meetings and local radio appearances has been replaced with in-person events and letters — all venues where he can’t be questioned.
  • Three members of Maine’s congressional delegation oppose ending “net neutrality.” Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, criticized the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to end net neutrality last week. It was approved under former President Barack Obama and aimed to make internet service providers treat all content equally. U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin has opposed the concept before and a spokesman said last week that the Internet “should be free to grow and develop, not hindered by Washington regulation.”
  • Despite a grim economic picture, Aroostook County is sending more children to college than all but one other Maine county. Nearly half of all public school students in The County qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. However, between 2009 and 2016, 67 percent of students there who graduated from high school were in college the following fall. That’s second among Maine counties — only behind wealthy Cumberland County. Some officials there chalk it up to strong support systems in and out of school in Aroostook’s small communities.
  • There is still a spot for a new charter school in Maine. No one wants it this year. Maine law allows up to 10 charter schools to open in the first 10 years after 2011, but only nine have opened. For the first time since the law was enshrined, nobody submitted an application to open a charter school this year and the leader of a charter school advocacy group said he’s “not convinced we’re going to get it at this point.”
  • We checked Maine’s legislative districts for gerrymandering and found nothing alarming. A U.S. Supreme Court case has given rise to a new way of evaluating districts to see whether or not they’re unfairly packed: “Wasted votes,” which include all votes for a losing candidate and excess votes above 50 percent for a winning candidate. If nearly all wasted votes go to a winning candidate, a district may be packed. But we found no real examples of that in Maine and wasted votes were almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats here.

Meet the Portland ‘czar’ who changed the direction of Congress

Nineteenth-century U.S. Rep. Thomas Brackett Reed of Portland entered office in the 1890s amid even a more gridlocked system than we had today. As speaker, Reed implemented a number of new rules designed to gum up the minority party’s power — which are still in effect today.

Among those rules are a requirement that there be a quorum and that everyone present vote. It was considered a shocking change in the era of representatives sitting at their desks and refusing to vote. And it earned him the nickname “Czar Reed.”

As the BDN’s Troy R. Bennett reports in this fascinating look-back article, Reed also had quite  sense of humor when it came to politics, including this zinger: “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.”

This Daily Brief is dedicated to Reed and the scores of politicians since him who have wanted to hide under their desks to avoid a vote but couldn’t. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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.