Maine’s partisan rift over tax policy will again play out at the ballot box

Good morning from Augusta, where the primary election candidates for governor have taken firm stands on the concept of taxing upper earners to pay for a universal home care system for all Mainers, regardless of their income.

If you haven’t heard about the proposal, you might not be alone. A coalition led the Maine People’s Alliance collected enough signatures last year to put the question on this November’s ballot, but with the bustling end of the legislative session and attention increasing on the June 12 primary, the ballot for November seems dim and distant.

However, not everyone is on board with the referendum, not by a long shot. Lobbyists at the State House are starting to quietly discuss problems with the referendum, and there is relatively widespread opposition to the concept of establishing an income figure to label certain Mainers as “wealthy” and therefore subject to a higher tax rate. In this case, the referendum proposes a total of 3.9 percent in payroll taxes on income above $127,200 — half paid by employers and half from employees.

It promises to be an intense debate leading up to November and likely an all-out battle next year with a new Legislature and new governor if the initiative is successful. This time, opponents may be even more emboldened following last year’s repeal of a 3 percent tax on income above $200,000 — which was also a citizen initiative spearheaded by the Maine People’s Alliance — for public schools.

In a separate item published this morning, we showed you how the seven Democrats running for governor responded to a short list of questions on the topic. All of them said they support universal home health care in concept but there were variations on the funding mechanism. Adam Cote, for example, said he would prefer the system to be paid for in the state budget and Janet Mills said she is still examining the intricacies of the proposed law.

We surveyed the Republican candidates, too, and — as expected — they are universally against the proposal. Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, for example, called it a “ploy” to gouge upper earners. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette called it “some of the worst public policy we have ever seen,” and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason said the initiative is “essentially playing Robin Hood with tax dollars.” Gorham businessman Shawn Moody said the taxes “would be devastating to Maine’s small businesses.”

More broadly, we also asked the candidates about their overall plans when it comes to taxation. In general, the Democrats favored various ways to increase tax revenues and shift the burden away from low-income Mainers and the middle class, while the Republicans said they would lower taxes. Fredette, Mason and Mayhew said they would propose to zero out Maine’s income tax completely while Moody took a softer stance centered on finding new efficiencies in state government as a means of further reducing the income and property taxes.

All things election will build to a deafening roar over the next few months but it’s not just about the candidates. The home care referendum will be a flashpoint for sure, and for many Mainers headed to the polls in November, it will be unfamiliar. Democrats in the House blocked the proposal from going through the Legislature’s committee process — which in turn avoided a formal public vetting of the proposal and by extension, any votes that would nail down anyone’s positions on the issue in an election year. The partisan split on the issue is predictable, stark and illuminating when it comes to what ideology any of the gubernatorial candidates would bring to the Blaine House.

LePage vetoes pot bill

The governor vetoed a bill to regulate recreational marijuana on Friday in an unsurprising move and citing familiar reasons. Gov. Paul LePage’s opposition has been factored into the debate around the bill, which would set a 20 percent effective tax rate on marijuana products, give Maine residents priority for commercial licenses and set health and safety standards.

The Legislature will return on Wednesday to consider this and a ream of other vetoes, and lawmakers have to get two-thirds votes in both chambers to override the veto. It got that level of support in earlier votes, but a LePage veto has changed things for some Republicans before and one more Democrat than Republican opposed it in the initial vote in the House of Representatives.

Reading list

  • The man accused of fatally shooting Somerset County Deputy Eugene Cole is in custody. An intense manhunt for John D. Williams ended Saturday when a search team apprehended Williams in a wooded area of Fairfield. Williams is expected to make his first court appearance today in Augusta. A memorial service for Cole is scheduled for next Monday in Bangor.
  • LePage has struggled to sign his own bills into law. With Democrats holding majorities in the Legislature for all but the first two years of his tenure in office, fewer than half of the 267 bills submitted by the Republican governor have become law. That’s a far lower percentage than his predecessor, Democrat John Baldacci, but it hasn’t stopped LePage from submitting bills. He has proposed 87 this session, including four submitted on the day of statutory adjournment.
  • Maine’s battle against opiate addiction has caused a return of chronic pain for some people. The state’s tighter oversight of prescription painkillers since the beginning of 2017 has left some people without access to dosages that used to help them manage chronic pain. The intent of the change was to help people taper off higher dosages of medications such as oxycodone, but that hasn’t worked for Debra Gerrish of Winter Harbor, who is now struggling to find palliative care for back and neck pain caused by workplace injuries and other trauma. “Nobody meant to do any harm, but a lot of harm has been done”, said Eva Quirion, a nurse practitioner at St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor.

Conventional karaoke

The Maine Republican Party will hold its state convention in Augusta on Friday and Saturday. One agenda item caught our attention: Dr. Demi’s Karaoke Spectacular.

Demi Kouzounas, a dentist and the party chairwoman, apparently has plans for her own lip-synch extravaganza. We can’t wait.

In the spirit of goodwill and fun, here are our soundtrack suggestions for karaoke performances from the party’s gubernatorial candidates: Here’s Ken Fredette’s soundtrack, here’s Garrett Mason’s soundtrack, here’s Mary Mayhew’s soundtrack and here’s Shawn Moody’s soundtrack.

As someone who has always been told to mouth the words instead of singing, I will sit this one out. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and 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.

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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.