“Answer the question,” Mr. Poliquin: On transparency and taxes

When a citizen at a town meeting asked a question about his property’s enrollment in a tax break program, Maine Treasurer Bruce Poliquin refused to answer.

Instead, Poliquin told his questioner that the question was inappropriate because the issue was initially raised by a group with whom he has political disagreements.

 

Poliquin will have to answer these questions eventually. He would do better to do so now.

But this issue goes beyond the circumstances of this particular state Treasurer.

One is the tendency of this administration to avoid transparency.

In response to LD1805, which would shield the Governor’s papers from public view

George Smith, former director of the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine, said he has been coming to the State House for 40 years and has “never experienced anything like the secrecy of this administration.”

Longtime State House reporter Mal Leary, who reports on a freelance basis for the Bangor Daily News. . . said the proposed law would put Maine “far outside the norm for access to records of state governors.” Only six other states have this type of exemption.

[Update: As commenter Nancy Hudak points out, Treasurer Poliquin is a constitutional officer and therefore not a part of the administration. However, in my view, his actions indicate the same attitude toward transparency.]

Moreover, the situation raises issues about tax expenditures.

As I wrote about this issue when the Poliquin tree tax story broke, “I don’t know the law well enough to determine if fraud was committed. . .  However, as Maine Public Broadcasting notes:

The law clearly states that property under tree growth must be maintained with the goal of producing commercial forest products, a use that appears contradictory to the restrictions in Poliquin’s deed. . . A 2009 study by the Maine Forest Service cited Poliquin’s property as an example of potential misuse of the tree-growth law.

I also pointed out that, “if the approximately $50,000 in tax reduction that Poliquin received was not fraudulent, it still matters. In fact, this illustrates a large but generally overlooked kind of benefit — tax expenditures. People who receive this kind of benefit, who may be supportive or critical of benefits that are directly delivered to citizens (such as SNAP/food stamps or Medicaid or unemployment insurance) may not even recognize these as government income transfers.”

In a recent, excellent two-part series on the Pine Tree Development Zone program, the authors noted that some recommend that, “development zones and all the other tax expenditures be considered as line item appropriations so they can be compared with all other spending items in the state’s biennial budget. They are not now routinely reviewed by the governor or the Legislature, according to a 2010 report on transparency and accountability in tax expenditures.”

These are real costs — significant costs — and they deserve scrutiny.

Postscript: Tax expenditures are a hot topic today, with pieces worth reading by David Brooks and Ezra Klein.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.