Gov. Paul LePage, unhappy with lawmakers’ reluctance to embrace his goal of slashing and ultimately eliminating the income tax, is planning a workaround: A citizen’s initiative.
LePage is still stewing about the Legislature’s rejection of his proposed constitutional amendment to kill the income tax. As written, the amendment would have incrementally eliminated the income tax by 2020, though the governor said he could be flexible with the timeline.
As is true with any constitutional amendment, the bill would have required the approval of voters. By rejecting the bill, LePage has said lawmakers are denying Mainers the right to decide their own tax destiny.
The governor is already so mad about the bill’s failure that he’s pledged to veto every piece of legislation passed by the House and Senate. He seems to be making good on it, too: On Monday alone, lawmakers took up a whopping 50 vetoes.
In an interview Tuesday morning on WVOM’s George Hale Ric Tyler Show, he said that when it comes to income tax cuts, he’s still got more fight in him. While he conceded that a constitutional amendment is required to eliminate the income tax completely, and that he can’t do that without legislative approval.
“But I will say this,” LePage said. “We can have a citizen’s initiative to lower the income tax. I can’t eliminate it through a people’s initiative, but we can lower it. And I will be doing that.
“In September I will be starting a people’s initiative to lower the income tax to 4 percent,” he said. “And I’m also going to bring back a bill in January to eliminate the income tax again. Since it happens to be an election year, I want in fresh in people’s mind when they go to the polls.”
That last comment is a call-back to LePage’s promise earlier this year to campaign against any lawmaker — Democrat or Republican — who he sees as opposing his income tax-killing campaign.
LePage is betting that an income tax ballot question in 2016 would make every legislative race a referendum on the candidates’ take on the income tax. And the governor plans to fight that referendum out in Maine communities with public forums similar to the ones he held on his budget proposal earlier this year.
A citizen’s initiative requires a lot of work — a bill must be drafted and tens of thousands of signatures would need to be gathered before the question is even guaranteed a place on the ballot. Then there’s the referendum campaign itself.
Still, LePage has demonstrated a tenacity in pursuing his goals. With the full backing of the Republican Party, which could provide the necessary bodies on the ground for signature gathering, there’s little stopping the governor from following through.
“As far as the citizen’s initiative, we still have time on this to finalize details,” said LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, when asked for additional information about the governor’s plans. “Rest assured, though, the Governor will continue to take his message to Mainers by way of his town hall-style meetings. which will start again in the fall.”
Democrats say LePage’s plan to eliminate the income tax is a bad idea because, so far, the governor has given no indication of how he’d fill the enormous hole such a move would create in the state budget. The income tax accounts for roughly half of all state revenue.
Eliminating the income tax will require increases to other taxes — such as the more regressive sales or property taxes — or broad spending cuts to critical state programs, LePage’s opponents say.
“If the governor wants to have an honest conversation with Maine voters, he should be upfront that his plan isn’t paid for,” said Maine Democratic Party spokeswoman Rachel Irwin on Tuesday. “We could eliminate all state funding for K-12 schools and higher education and still not have enough money to cover the massive budget gap. The governor is selling the people of Maine a bad deal and until he comes to the table ready to talk about property tax relief, investments in public education and workforce development, our economy will continue to pay the price.”
The state’s top marginal income tax is currently 7.95 percent — the result of cuts LePage successfully shepherded through the Legislature during his first term. The budget deal passed by the Legislature last week, which LePage is expected to veto, would see the top rate decrease to 7.15 percent.