Some Republicans begin to consider taxes to close budget gap

The Legislature’s Taxation Committee has made a series of recommendations to help balance the state’s budget.

The specifics range from a temporary increase in the sales tax, to a delay in tax cuts that were passed in 2011 but never paid for, to an overarching tax reform package proposed by the bipartisan “Gang of 11.”

While the details of the recommendations matter – and matter particularly for the state as lawmakers work to find the best public policy, and various constituent groups try to determine how they will be affected – the recommendations are also significant because some Republican members of the Legislature say that revenue should be part of the approach to balance the state budget.

They have gone down the road less traveled by their party brethren. They have dared to speak the policy that must not be named: taxes.

Conservative Grover Norquist, who created a national no-tax pledge, must be smelling brimstone.

Republican legislators, and particularly party leaders including Gov. Paul LePage, have made cutting taxes the centerpiece of their rhetorical platform even as the policy has been shown as an ineffective way to grow the economy.

Unfortunately for them, hard facts and pesky math have intervened.

LePage has slashed taxes on the wealthy and top earners, but he never really paid for the largess. Instead, he hid the costs by pushing off the implementation dates. He cut taxes, but he didn’t have a responsible solution for filling the gap in the budget he created.

He’s delivered his plan to keep those cuts for folks with large estates and big paychecks, and it is ugly.

The budget LePage proposed is not really balanced. It includes gimmicks, one-day borrowing, a hidden tax increase of its own and a hatchet approach to state support for municipal government.

The governor’s plan would eliminate revenue sharing and funding for property tax relief programs while also including a new shift of costs onto local governments to pay for public education.

The budget is so bad that most Republicans probably wouldn’t support its most draconian measures if forced to vote on them.

Maine’s towns and cities have been in open revolt over the proposals, which would cripple their local budgets and mean massive layoffs and reduced public services.

Town government is the closest to the people, and city councilors and selectmen know well that taxpayers support their teachers, firefighters and police officers. They want their garbage picked up and their streets plowed. They value public education, public parks and after-school programs. And they’re willing to pay for them.

That’s why towns and cities have sent scores of official resolutions to the Legislature expressing their opposition to the governor’s strangling policies.

As we slip past Memorial Day and into the last week of May, the clock and the calendar are becoming the Legislature’s biggest enemy.

With a statutory adjournment date set for June 19 and a constitutional requirement for a new state budget to take effect by July 1, there’s not much time left to hammer out the kind of compromise our state needs.

And to make matters more difficult, the governor has moved his office – apparently to crazy town.

He says that he won’t allow his budget or policy experts to testify to legislative budget committees. Instead, he’ll answer all the questions himself.

He says he’s moving his office out of the State House over a silly disagreement about a TV. He then removed a transom from above his office and stuck the TV there, in a move that’s questionable from both a legal and safety point of view.

But mostly, worse than the theatrics or the bombast, the governor has demonstrated that he will not compromise, that he sees no value in the legislative process and that he doesn’t really care what other lawmakers – in his own party or another – think or care about.

He’s vetoed unanimously passed bills intended to make government work better or protect public health. He’s been spiteful, and so far Republicans in the Legislature have stood by him.

But with a deadline for action approaching, a few notable – and dare I say brave Republicans – have left open the door to a compromise that could put the state on better financial footing.

And that is a hopeful sign.

I see no evidence that LePage has a plan to lead the state through the budget dilemma he helped to create.

Instead, the job falls to Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature. They will need to agree to a fair and responsible budget plan, and then they’ll have to stick together to override a likely veto.

That’s a big job, but given the abdication of responsibility from the executive, it’s the only option because the alternative – a government shutdown – should be unthinkable.