Honeymoon over, as LePage and GOP leaders split on taxes

Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Photo credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Photo credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Just like that, just under two months after his inauguration, Gov. LePage’s main policy endeavor of his second term, seems to be dead in the water.

LePage revealed a complex tax plan that involved cutting the income tax, zeroing out the estate tax, cutting municipal revenue sharing (which would raise property taxes many places), raising and broadening the sales tax, zeroing out the homestead tax credit for people under 65 while doubling it for seniors, and taxing nonprofits.

His staff called it big. They called it bold.

For awhile, GOP legislators were very quiet on the particulars of the LePage plan.

But they are now speaking up after LePage, in WMTW reporter Paul Merrill’s characterization, “question[ed] whether a Republican who opposes his tax plan is really a Republican.”

LePage was interviewed for WMTW on Thursday, the day after he spoke at a Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon.

At the luncheon, LePage said that he would introduce a constitutional amendment to get rid of the income tax but he didn’t think it would pass.

According to reporter Mario Moretto:

“I fully expect the Legislature will say no this year,” LePage said. “But next year is an election year. And I will spend the rest of my time as governor fighting the battle to eliminate the income tax and lowering energy costs, I promise you.”

LePage pledged to target any lawmaker who votes against his efforts.

“I will spend the rest of my days going after those people,” he said.

Based on these comments and LePage’s statement about Republicans opposing his ideas not really being Republicans, GOP legislative leaders have responded.

According to reporter Steve Mistler:

Top Republican lawmakers [Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls]Thursday issued their first response to Gov. Paul LePage’s comments that he’ll work against all lawmakers who vote against his aggressive tax initiative, revealing a division that has been widely assumed but remained largely out of public view. . .

“While the governor has a way of making comments that grab headlines, Senate Republicans are committed to reducing the overall tax burden on Maine citizens,” Thibodeau said in a statement. “That tax burden includes property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes.”

He added, “In the coming weeks, we look forward to a discussion that will lead us to passing a budget that Mainers can afford.” . . .

[Mason said], “We are supportive of lowering, and eventually eliminating, the income tax, but the best way to achieve that goal is to reduce the size of government and encourage the growth of business.”

Clearly, the GOP leadership does not like major elements of his plan. They also don’t seem concerned about LePage labeling Republicans opposing him as faux Republicans.

What happened here?

Based on news reports from when the tax plan was unveiled, it appears that LePage did not work with GOP leadership as his tax plan was being developed. (Let me be clear: I have no inside knowledge about whether or what extent such consultation occurred.)

We know LePage, who calls himself a straight talker, did not take this plan to the voters. He talked about lowering the income tax but he didn’t say he would propose raising and broadening the sales tax.

That lack of openness on his proposal made it harder for LePage to build consensus for passing the plan, which would raise some taxes to fund the income tax cuts and to fund getting rid of the estate tax.

While it’s certainly true that other politicians haven’t been completely open with voters about their plans, LePage built an image of being direct and candid. He wasn’t when it came to his tax proposal, even as he criticized Mike Michaud for not revealing details of how Michaud’s policy proposals would be financed.

It could be that LePage wouldn’t have won reelection if he had taken his tax plan to the voters. But if he had talked about it and won, he would have had an electoral mandate.

It’s a good bet that virtually all legislators got a higher percentage of vote in their districts than LePage. They are accountable to their own constituents. And LePage won’t be on the ballot in 2016, or ever again. All of that gives legislators an institutional place from which to exercise independence from LePage.

While intraparty public disagreements are now being aired, Republican leaders and Gov. LePage have plenty in common. Most of their policy and political goals are aligned. So while the honeymoon is over, there’s no doubt they will work together a good deal in the future.

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.