‘Marriage penalty’ debate takes center-stage in Maine home care fight

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is touting a new report predicting that the universal home care referendum on the November ballot would reduce personal income, employment, population and labor force in Maine.

But the analysis released by the state on Thursday is fraught by a question of interpretation that could be answered more authoritatively later by Attorney General Janet Mills’ office, making it difficult to take meaningful lessons from the state economist’s report — at least for now.

We know that the referendum will amount to a significant new tax on high-income Mainers. Question 1 on the November ballot is backed by a progressive coalition, including the Maine People’s Alliance, and it would set up a universal home care system for people 65 and older and people with disabilities.

It’s being opposed by conservatives and business groups wary of the funding scheme, which places a combined 3.8 percent tax on income over $128,400 and non-wage income over that threshold. The Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office has used Maine Revenue Services data to say the tax would generate $310 million annually.

What’s unclear at the moment is whether married couples’ income would be treated jointly or separately under the law. The LePage administration has argued that the tax will install a “marriage penalty” that could hit each of two married earners who each make more than $128,400 but whose combined income exceeds it. That makes up a “significant portion” of the fiscal estimate, according to the administration.

That isn’t explicitly addressed in the proposed law, but it probably isn’t the intent. The Legislature’s fiscal office uses the word “individuals” to describe who it applies to, but it relies on lots information from LePage’s budget department, which also persuaded Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, to say in the language of Question 1 that the tax would also apply to families.

Garrett Martin, the executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a progressive group that has taken no position on the referendum, said the LePage administration’s report “continues to perpetuate a flawed assumption about how the tax will apply to married couples” and that the law’s intent is not to hit married couples twice. To him, that makes the report “flawed” and he said it “should be ignored.”

The question may be more authoritatively settled by the attorney general’s office. A Dunlap spokeswoman said Friday that the voter guide offering the state’s legal analysis of the law will be released in late September or early October.

But for now, the politicking will center on the report and this issue. Be skeptical and see the nuance, which is always in this age of Maine politics.

CorrectionMills’ office will issue a legal analysis of the referendum, not a decision on the marriage penalty issue, according to a Dunlap spokeswoman. It was due was an error in an attributed article. Also, the fiscal office’s revenue estimate for the proposed law includes the so-called “marriage penalty,” though it refers to those affected as “individuals.” There was also a dated reference to the income threshold under the law. They were reporter’s errors.

Reading list

  • The Clean Election program is open, bypassing a legislative stalemate. The Maine Ethics Commission voted on Thursday to reopen the $3.2 million public campaign fund to candidates in the 2018 election by ignoring a drafting error in state law that blocked disbursement of those funds as of July 1. Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives had been blocking a fix of the error, while Democrats retaliated by withholding votes on tax legislation. The LePage administration doesn’t look to be resisting this after an earlier court ruling against it on the fund, so the Legislature’s path to ending a marathon 2018 session could have just gotten easier.
  • It was a strange day at a disbarment hearing for a district attorney candidate in western Maine. Republican Seth Carey was set to testify on Thursday, the second day of a hearing over whether he’ll keep his law license amid allegations of sexual assault. He didn’t make it far, promptly breaking down in tears on the stand. In court, Carey played with a cellphone that the alleged victim said he stole from her. (He said it was “abandoned” at his home.) Disbarment would keep Carey from taking office even if he wins the November election over Democrat Andrew Robinson, the district attorney in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties.
  • A Democratic doctor running for U.S. Senate in 2020 was reprimanded by a state board for unprofessional conduct. Dr. Cathleen London, a family practitioner from Milbridge, drew complaints for letting her dogs roam the office and criticizing patients’ support of President Donald Trump. A review found she also inappropriately prescribed methadone and opioids and violated the terms of Maine’s medical marijuana program. She signed an agreement with the state putting her license on probation and barring her from prescribing methadone. London, a Democrat, declared a run against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, last month.
  • A Baileyville mill has a history of wastewater leaks. The state says that the Woodland Pulp Mill in Baileyville has had three large wastewater leaks in the past two years. Two of those came in September 2016, when 3 million gallons of partially treated wastewater leaked and sent 1 million of that into the St. Croix River, which separates Maine from New Brunswick. Half a million gallons more leaked last week at the mill.

A chance to say goodbye

We continue to be immensely grateful and overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness, generosity and support that has come our way since our friend and colleague, Chris Cousins, died on Wednesday. Thank you to everyone who has reached out.

A memorial service to honor his life is scheduled for 11 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 25, in the auditorium at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in South Paris.

We’ll tell stories, sing songs, comfort friends and maybe say a bad word or two. Because that’s what he would do. Here’s your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by 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 leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.

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.