Forecaster Forum: Putting aside politics to reform Maine's tax code

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What happens when one independent, five Democrats and five Republicans decide to leave their politics at the door in the name of Maine’s well being? A chance at real and meaningful reform is created.

By now you have probably heard a good deal about the so-called “Gang of 11,” the bipartisan group of legislators who crafted a proposal to transform Maine’s outdated and failing tax code. You are likely trying to determine how it will help you, your family, your business and your neighbors. These were the same questions we wrestled with as we came together week after week to craft this reform.

The Gang of 11 ranges from the left to the right of the political spectrum. It is made up of new legislators, as well as some experienced leaders. No matter what our ideology, or the breadth of our experience, we have all seen the crisis the Legislature finds itself in year after year as we struggle to put together a meaningful state budget. We too, feel the burden on hard-working people struggling to pay their rising property taxes. We understand the challenge for businesses trying to establish themselves, to build a brand, to expand and succeed.

There are at least two things needed to push our economy into growth mode. The first is that our residents need meaningful tax relief. When people pay less in taxes, they have more to inject into the economy, to invest in businesses and to keep the economy going. The second is an engine for stimulus. Prosperity happens when business development is encouraged and good-paying jobs are created.

Many have wondered how similar this bill is to previous tax reform proposals. It is far broader and, we think, superior. This reform pays for itself. This reform puts money into the pockets of Mainers. This reform is the first one that does more than lower one tax or increase another. Our plan exports taxes while increasing the wealth of Mainers and positioning our economy for growth by slicing our income taxes in half, eliminating the estate tax and decreasing our corporate tax rate. These policies will invite business investment.

But we need more than that. Currently, property tax makes up a disproportionate burden in the comprehensive tax scheme, at more than 40 percent of the overall taxes people pay. Further, it is a very regressive tax – arguably the most regressive tax – as we find that those in the lowest income brackets pay up to 30 percent of their income toward property taxes. Our reform plan targets property tax relief directly to Maine residents, homeowners and renters alike. It offers savings of up to 42 percent on property tax for a primary residence.

In these tough budget times, tax cuts must be paid for. Fortunately for Maine, we are blessed with many nonresidents and visitors who love to spend as much as five months and 30 days a year in our state. These folks enjoy Maine, while using our roads and infrastructure, parks, beaches and waterfronts, fire and police departments, sometimes even our hospitals. Expanding and increasing (by 1 cent) the sales tax allows us to capture a greater share of their cash to support these basic services. At the same time, we will offer Maine residents a refundable sales tax fairness credit that they can easily claim when paying their income tax. Under our plan, they can also claim a property tax fairness credit and a $50,000 homestead exemption on the same form.

Our bill, now known as LD 1496, has been sent to the Taxation Committee. We hope that the result of the committee’s deliberations still resembles our original proposal. But there are many moving parts, and we acknowledge that.

When we came together, we rolled up our sleeves and answered your call to do what is right for Maine. The questions we asked ourselves at each juncture were:

• Will this reform improve the well being of Maine people?

• Will it strengthen Maine’s economy?

• Can it provide a more stable and predictable revenue stream?

• Does it, in fact, help us with the very budget challenges we face right now?

If we want that Maine, that vibrant successful Maine where our children and grandchildren can choose to live, then we invite you all to ask those same questions of this package. We ask you to look beyond the individual interest groups and to recognize that true change requires all of us to leave our politics at the door.

State Rep. Mark Dion, is a Portland Democrat who represents part of Portland and part of Falmouth. Rep. Sara Gideon is a Freeport Democrat. Rep. Amy Volk is a Scarborough Republican.