LePage’s last budget offers plenty of bold ideas, both good and bad

Gov. Paul LePage unveiled his final biennial budget proposal on Friday. It contained a number of bold proposals — some good, some bad — that are unlikely to make it into the final document. He’s also included a number of proposals that he’s made before in past budgets and legislation, and those are unlikely to gain any more traction this year than in the past. However, he’s also offered some ideas that deserve serious consideration and may, eventually, become law in some form.

At the top of the list of bad ideas that LePage can’t seem to shake is his continued effort to broaden the sales tax. This was a bad idea when Democrats proposed it during the tenure of Gov. John Baldacci — so bad that it was repealed at the polls by the voters of Maine in a people’s veto — and it remains a bad idea.

Gov. Paul LePage, right, with Senate President Michael Thibodeau and House Speaker Sara Gideon in December. Gabor Degre | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage, right, with Senate President Michael Thibodeau and House Speaker Sara Gideon in December. Gabor Degre | BDN

No matter what you call it or exactly what form it takes, any expansion of the sales tax is, at the end of the day, a tax increase that will be passed along to the consumers. That will raise the prices for all of us, and turn thousands of small businessmen across Maine into tax collectors for the state. Fortunately, the Legislature has shown little appetite for this idea ever since the Baldacci tax fiasco; hopefully that doesn’t change any time soon. Maine doesn’t need any new taxes or tax increases: We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

In other portions of the budget, LePage seems to recognize this. He wisely is continuing to push for a reduction in the income tax, both personal and corporate, and the elimination of the estate tax. With these cuts, LePage hopes to move the state toward a flat income tax, rather than a progressive one, and that’s certainly a worthy goal. However, we shouldn’t do it by raising some taxes and reducing others; that’s a bureaucratic gimmick, not a real tax cut.

LePage has also used this budget to propose new reforms in two major areas: welfare and education. Maine has done good work on welfare reform in recent years, often in a bipartisan way, but there’s still much to be done. It’s good to see that LePage is continuing to push for changes in Maine’s welfare programs. For years, Maine has been offering benefits that it can’t really afford, and the state ought to consider living within its means for a change. Even if LePage’s proposals were enacted, that wouldn’t be enough, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

There are even bigger changes in store in this budget for education. LePage hopes to shift funding that pays for administrative overhead to encouraging  additional regionalization, completely rewrite the current school funding formula, and create a statewide teacher contract. LePage’s proposals would constitute a massive shake-up in Maine’s education system — one that’s sorely needed. Of course, these plans would be difficult to pass in even a Republican legislature; with Democrats controlling the House, they’ll be next to impossible.

As he has in the past, LePage is showing with this budget that he’s willing to offer bold ideas, some of which will be detested even within his own party. That sort of leadership is good to see, as it always leads to interesting discussions in Augusta. It would be easy to sit in the Blaine House and not rock the boat, offering milquetoast budgets designed to please both sides — but that’s not what Maine needs.

We need real leadership, and for the past six years we’ve been lucky to have that from LePage, even when he’s been wrong.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.