Imagine this for a moment — liberal activists push a “tax the rich to fund education” referendum and win narrowly, making Maine’s top tax rate the highest in the nation. But a united Republican Party, with the state’s economy and best interests in mind, rolls back the tax increase completely and still finds a way to fund education at record levels.
That’s where we could be, right now, if House Republicans took off the governor’s leash and focused on good, conservative policymaking.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau made it clear early on that the 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000, passed by referendum last fall, needed to be rolled back. He called the passage of the surcharge “an economic crisis,” and that “a migration of Maine businesses and their employees out of the state will shrink the tax base and lead to an uncontrollable economic decline.”
Thibodeau wasn’t alone in his assessment. Prior to the election, both the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald agreed, editorializing against the referendum. Now many Maine businesses, including our hospitals, have joined the cry to roll back the surcharge.
Democrats in the Legislature are under pressure to maintain as much of the surcharge as possible from far-left progressives who tend not to have things like “the economy” or “business growth” at the top of their lists.
So, we have an impasse.
Thibodeau and Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, however, have distilled the debate into a workable negotiation. Democrats want the surcharge to generate funding for education, but they don’t want to be seen as pushing punitive policy on the business community. Republicans want the surtax eliminated to remove Maine’s stigma as an anti-business state and to encourage job growth, but they also do not want to be seen as anti-education.
Distilled to its bare bones, this argument is not about the tax at all. It’s about education funding.
After weeks of deliberation, Gideon and Thibodeau have come very close to a deal. The Senate Republican plan offers a complete elimination of the surcharge, but at the same time increases funding for education to an all-time high — well over $100 million. Democrats, though willing to discuss a surcharge rollback, are bargaining for more education funding.
Getting this close on such a contentious issue is a remarkable feat, and both Thibodeau and Gideon (and especially their staffs) should be praised for their good-faith efforts so far.
But there’s a problem — House Republicans.
Rather than seeing the Senate GOP proposal as a victory against higher tax rates, the House Republicans have taken up their role as loyal subjects to the governor and are opposing the Senate Republican plan. Their position makes no sense. The Senate plan eliminates the 3 percent surcharge altogether without raising taxes elsewhere. Both the House GOP plan and the governor’s plan used tax increases to generate revenue. The Senate Republican proposal is the most conservative of all the budget plans offered.
For his part, LePage is not concerned with conservative principles like lower taxes — he’s trying to force a government shutdown. There’s really no other explanation for his actions: he fired his budget commissioner for sharing budget data with the Republican Senate. You don’t take that kind of drastic action if you’re looking for a solution.
LePage went on the radio last week and excoriated the Legislature as a whole, calling them “the laziest bunch” he’s ever worked with. He’s running a PR offensive to blame the Legislature when the state shuts down, while simultaneously undermining the process to help ensure the shutdown.
But do House Republicans really want a shutdown?
Let’s turn to the House Republican spokesman to find out. Rob Poindexter, communications director for the House Republicans, took to social media last week promoting a column that lays it out as plain as day.
The column, written by the BDN’s Matthew Gagnon, is titled “Government shutdown is better than budget nonsense,” and concludes with the following line: “And if this is how things are going to be done, then I say shut it down.”
Poindexter is the spokesperson for the House Republican caucus, and if he’s pushing the “shut it down” position, I think that makes it pretty clear where the House GOP stands.
So instead of having a united Republican front that saves Maine’s economy from the disastrous impact of a highest-in-the-nation top tax rate, while concurrently funding our schools fully for the first time in ages, we’ve got a government shutdown looming on the horizon. And House Republicans seem to be celebrating the impending chaos.
Instead of walking away looking like heroes, Republicans will be entangled in a no-win situation that causes the people of Maine to think even less of their government as a whole. And when the dust settles, it will be LePage and his blind loyalists in the House Republican caucus that will have to explain why they shut government down rather than accept a deal that gives conservatives everything they wanted.