Should you trust LePage or Democrats on the economy?

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, left, and Gov. Paul LePage, right. BDN photos by Troy Bennett.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, left, and Gov. Paul LePage, right. BDN photos by Troy Bennett.

“The economy” is a complicated thing. Thanks to the lingering effects of the recession, it’s constantly at or near the top of the most important issue to respondents in public opinion polls. Critical Insight’s most recent survey had “the economy” and “unemployment” as the first- and second-most important issues facing Maine. 

Because it’s so important to Mainers, every politician in the state has a vested interest in how the economy is doing, and they need the numbers to prove whatever point they’re making at any given moment. Luckily for them, there are myriad economic indicators that can easily be spun to fit the day’s narrative. Depending on who you listen to, the state’s economy is booming, or it’s stagnant.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, for example, needs the numbers to show that the economy is improving under his watch. That message is even more important with LePage facing re-election in November.

So the governor’s office and campaign have recently been touting the state’s unemployment rate (the lowest since 2008), and the employment-to-population ratio (which is higher than the national average). LePage and his supporters say this is thanks to the governor’s pro-business policies and a “culture change” at the Blaine House that has made the state more inviting to businesses.

Democrats and their allies will tell you that if the state’s economy is improving, it’s in spite of LePage not because of him. They generally ignore the low unemployment rate and high employment-to-population ratio, favoring instead figures that show how Maine is doing compared to other states.

Maine ranks 50th in the country for its rate of both total and private job growth, they say, usually citing a study by the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy. They point to other studies that show the rates of homelessness and child poverty growing since LePage took the state’s reins.

Just yesterday, the governor’s office pointed reporters to this story in USA Today, which lists Portland’s wealthy as the seventh-most taxed in the country. LePage said this proves that his historic income tax cut did not unfairly benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, a common Democratic talking point.

“Maine liberals falsely label this historic tax relief as ‘tax cuts for the rich,’” LePage wrote in a release. “But, as this report points out, the rich in Portland — the liberals’ flagship city — pay more than their fair share, while low-income Mainers have enjoyed tax relief because of our income tax cut.”

The thing is, the USA Today story factored not only income tax, but sales tax, automobile excise tax and local property taxes. Municipalities and LePage’s political opponents have linked LePage’s income tax cut — paid for in part by reduced funding for state aid to municipalities — with rising property tax rates. They call it “cost-shifting.” (LePage explains away higher property taxes as Portland’s budget being controlled by “liberals.”)

In their own release, Democrats cited Maine Revenue Service figures that show that more than 43 percent of LePage’s tax cuts go to the top 10 percent of income earners, and that the poorest 20 percent in Maine saw income tax savings of less than $20.

“Governor Paul LePage’s tax cuts have overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy,” wrote House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “These tax cuts for the wealthy have cannibalized our state budget and hurt our economy.”

OK, so do Portland’s wealthy pay a lot in taxes? Sure. Does that really say anything about LePage’s income tax cut? Maybe not.

The point is: You can cherry pick any economic indicator you want in an effort to tell the story you’re trying to tell. It’s rare for every single indicator to tell the same tale; Usually, the truth — factoring all the information available — is a lot more nuanced and complicated.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House.