The numbers behind LePage’s latest assault on tax-exempt property

Good morning from Augusta. Gov. Paul LePage will give his State of the State speech on Tuesday, but he has already said what his top issue will be in 2018: a perceived overabundance of land exempt from Maine property taxes.

The Republican governor seems to be wading in more generally to a topic that he has touched on before. During his tenure, he has unsuccessfully tried to tax nonprofits and make land trusts pay taxes on conservation land.

Overall, the state says $18.6 billion in total land was exempt from taxes in 2016 — 11.4 percent of the estimated value of all land in Maine. But that share has stayed right around that mark for more than a decade, which is key context for this coming debate.

Exempt property is a wide category and its value is mostly tracking with all other property in Maine. One thing to remember about tax-exempt property is that most of it is owned by governments. Federal, state and local governments owned an estimated $10.1 billion in tax-exempt property in 2016. “Benevolent and charitable organizations,” including hospitals, owned $3 billion worth. “Literary and scientific institutions,” including colleges, owned $2.1 billion. In 2005, 12 percent of Maine’s total property value was exempt, so the share of exempt land has actually declined slightly since then because state property values have steadily risen.

The governor’s latest push is coming after a new, yet flawed review of land trust property. The two-year budget deal breaking the 2017 state government shutdown included a new registry of property held by land trusts. A Maine Land Trust Network report says that they own 600,000 acres and help preserve another 1.9 million in privately owned land, but that they don’t pay taxes or payments in lieu of taxes on just 1.5 percent of that acreage. A document provided by LePage’s office to a legislative committee actually underestimates land trust holdings at 490,000. Jonathan LaBonte, the director of LePage’s policy office, also said after questions from the Bangor Daily News that his office overestimated state conservation holdings by some 658,000 acres and said it would be revised.

All of this will make LePage’s new push controversial. LaBonte said the land trust estimate was off because some land trusts “chose to not comply with state law and withheld information about their properties” despite being contacted by the administration. But Jeff Romano, the public policy manager at Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said his group offered to help the administration collect missing data or review data, but that the administration didn’t take it up on the offer and are now offering “inaccurate and incomplete data.” We’ll hear more about all of this on Tuesday and likely beyond.

LePage was in DC on Wednesday

The governor met with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant on Wednesday. The topic of discussion was tariffs on the province’s softwood lumber exports that LePage has fought. In November, the U.S. ended an exemption for New Brunswick from the tariffs, and imposed a nearly 21 percent duty that the rest of Atlantic Canada’s producers won’t have to pay. Forestry giant J.D. Irving, which owns massive tracts of land in Canada and Maine, will pay a rate below 10 percent. Gallant said his province is ready to bring the issue to court if needed, but that could take years. The governor’s office said Wednesday that the session with Ross and Gallant was his only meeting in the nation’s capital and that he was expected to return hastily to Maine, weather permitting. However, he was spotted at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Wednesday night.

Today in A-town

For the record, we erred yesterday when we said legislative activity was postponed due to the snow storm. A few committees held public hearing in the morning, but afternoon work sessions were canceled for the day. Our bad. Here’s our soundtrack.

Today, the sun is shining and the schedule will move forward as usual. The House and Senate are in this morning, and you can see their calendars here and here. Both bodies are starting to move bills to the debate and enactment phases of the process. Legislative committees have maybe the longest docket on tap we’ve seen so far this year. It’s becoming busy in A-town.

Reading list

  • Has rough rhetoric in state and national politics made civility impossible? The rise of the brash-talking LePage and President Donald Trump have given voice to millions of fed-up voters and given politicians at many levels new latitude when it comes to verbal attacks on opponents. But is it good for democracy? Does it impair the basic functions of government? Maine’s legislative leaders, who insist that public debate remain respectful, say no.
  • MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta is ending its diabetes treatment because insurance doesn’t cover the cost. The Augusta hospital’s CEO said neither private insurance nor Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement rates cover the cost of the care and that the hospital has been losing about $500,000 a year since it started the service five years ago. Approximately 4,000 diabetics will have to find care elsewhere.
  • The U.S. Senate has struck a deal to avoid another government shutdown on Friday but now the debate moves to the House. The two-year funding blueprint agreed to on Wednesday would increase spending by $300 billion — more than half of that for military spending — and would suspend the federal debt ceiling until March 2019. The Senate is expected to vote on its version of the budget bill today.
  • LePage has named an interim sheriff in Oxford County. LePage appointed former Mexico police Chief James Theriault as the interim sheriff to replace former Sheriff Wayne Gallant, who resigned in late 2017 after allegations of sexual harassment and improper workplace behavior. LePage chose Theriault from a list of three recommendations from the Oxford County Democratic Committee.

Lobsters just made the big time

As you may have read, the Atlantic lobster is getting its own emoji following an online petition. The lobster was one of 157 new emojis coming to your social media device later this year. The lobster has grand company on that list, which includes bagels, the mosquito, a magnet, toilet paper, safety goggles and a Frisbee.

The online petition was launched by the owner of a Tenants Harbor lobster restaurant. The design announced by the Unicode Consortium, which manages emojis used by most websites and operating systems, depicts a red lobster.

This will complicate crustacean purists’ futile efforts to teach the world that most lobsters are GREENISH-BROWN before you cook ‘em. Here’s your soundtrack.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this 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.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.