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Policy Wonk: Balanced tax reform eludes Woodbury, 'Gang of 11'

Opinion

Policy Wonk: Balanced tax reform eludes Woodbury, 'Gang of 11'

It is not the boldness of the reforms that is troubling about LD 1496, the set of tax reforms proposed by the so-called "Gang of 11" and its principal architect, Yarmouth independent Sen. Richard Woodbury. It is the breadth of the legislation.

The number of moving parts (proposed changes) in the Woodbury proposals, each with a constituency, will make passage of the reform package difficult. It is hard to imagine any Maine taxpayer who will not simultaneously be benefited and harmed by any number of these changes. So much so, that the final measure of benefit or loss will be difficult for most taxpayers to determine.

These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the Woodbury reforms arrived late in the legislative session, leaving little time for discussion and/or refinement. Moreover, LD 1496 does not yet exist in final form. We only have a “concept draft” of the legislation. As public and legislative debate unfolds over the next days and weeks, the details of these proposals will need to be hammered out. But time is short, and bear in mind, passage of these reforms is not possible until all of the details are in place and agreed to – a formidable task at this point.

Turning to more substantive issues, there is much to like in the reform package.

The increase in the sales tax to 6 percent, broadening this tax to include a wider range of services, and eliminating a large number of sales tax exemptions are all steps in the right direction. These changes will not project Maine’s sales tax to the national forefront – they barely get us to the median point among the 45 sales-taxing states.

At the same time, Woodbury’s sales tax credit mechanism will significantly reduce the regressive character of Maine’s sales tax for most middle- and low-income families. It’s a very positive step.

Woodbury’s proposed excise tax increases are modest and long overdue, particularly the 1 percent increases on meals, accommodations, and rental vehicles. The impact of these changes will fall largely on visitors to the state – people who now pay very little towards the costs they impose on state and local governments. Moreover, these increases will leave Maine’s excise tax burdens well below similar burdens imposed in other New England and/or tourist destination states.

The argument that visitors won’t come if these increases are adopted is ludicrous – no evidence supports this assertion. Our own experience tells us that business activities in major metropolitan areas and/or vacation plans are not altered by these relatively minor excise tax levies. People go where they need and want to go, without regard to these tax levies.

Other features of the Woodbury reforms that move us in the right direction include the modest reduction in the level of property tax exemption for a range of nonprofit entities; the simplification and reduction of the personal income tax, and the proposal for a property tax fairness credit. The latter provision would significantly reduce the high property tax burdens most Mainers face. This reform is long overdue.

Notwithstanding all of these positives in the Woodbury proposals, the most troubling feature of the reform package is the unmistakable tilt to protect the wealthy. Here are some examples:

• The income tax simplification provisions ending most tax deductions and phasing out credits utilized mainly by higher-income individuals and families are sensible. And, yes, the two credit mechanisms Woodbury fashions will reduce the income tax burden on middle- and low-income residents. But setting the maximum rate at 4 percent is a windfall to wealthy Maine residents – a giveaway of needed future income tax revenue.

• Reducing corporate income tax rates also benefits the relatively well-off. Corporate tax burdens in Maine have declined steadily over the last 30 years. It’s another unaffordable giveaway of future income tax revenue.

• Woodbury’s proposal to eliminate estate taxes altogether, again, only benefits the very wealthy. Gov. Paul LePage’s 2011 tax cuts reduced estates taxes by 50 percent; many thought this was unwise and unnecessary. Eliminating this tax altogether makes no sense. It is extreme, and costly.

• Woodbury’s property tax fairness credit (a good idea) would expand existing “homestead” property tax relief provisions. But this approach needlessly benefits wealthy homeowners who do not need property tax relief. In the past, Woodbury (and others) have argued that the “circuit breaker” approach to property tax relief, which focuses on low-income homeowners and renters and targets property tax relief where it is most needed, is far better.

In summary, the Woodbury reforms buy into the Republican mantra that lower taxes will create jobs by drawing (or keeping) wealthy individuals and corporations into Maine. No evidence suggests this is true.

At the federal level, effective income tax rates are at their lowest level in 60 years, but that has not stopped jobs from moving overseas, and it did not stop the recent recession, or pull us out of it. It seems foolish to believe that lowering taxes for wealthy Mainers will somehow produce a different result.

The Woodbury proposals have clearly given us a myriad of good ideas to build upon. In my view they do not give us a balanced tax reform package that should be, or is likely to be, adopted at this point in time.