Mr. Eves and Mr. Alfond went to Bangor last night, with handouts and a Powerpoint to show the audience.
These Democratic legislative leaders spent more than 90 minutes explaining their tax and budget plan and taking questions. It was a thoroughly open meeting, with no screening of questions beforehand.
Gov. LePage never mentioned his tax plan when he campaigned for reelection. Sure, he did say he wanted to lower taxes, but candidate LePage kept things generic. There was no mention of items that would be distasteful to many, certainly including those in his own party, like applying the sales tax to over two hundred new situations or zeroing out revenue sharing altogether, and ending the homestead tax deduction for people under 65.
But it’s been a central part of political conversation since LePage unveiled it.
Democrats are doing five smart things right now.
1. By not just saying “no,” Democrats aren’t letting LePage define the conversation about taxes and spending.
Simply putting out an alternative plan gives Democrats greater credibility to criticize the LePage plan.
It makes it clear that there isn’t just one way to decrease taxes and, in fact, theirs will make the most difference for the vast majority of Maine people.
Political decisions can be a choice about alternatives or a referendum on something or someone in particular.
Besides actual referenda – say on marriage rights or bonds – people can look at a situation and think about rejecting or endorsing that option.
On health policy, Maine Republicans have done that on health policy, as they have no alternative to covering people who make too little to qualify for subsidies for private insurance. They just said “no” to Medicaid expansion. Nationally, Republicans reject the Affordable Care Act and have no real alternative, despite the fact that a flat repeal is not at all popular.
That shows a lack of seriousness.
On taxes, Maine Democrats have avoided that situation because they do have an alternative.
2. Democrats are clear about how their budget would affect particular families.
As individuals and families, we pay our own income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes. That money comes out of our paychecks and pockets, going to support schools, roads, health care and other priorities.
It matters to us how much tax plans affect individuals and families.
So it was smart for Democrats to present the below graphic with three families and how their tax situation would change under their plan vs LePage’s plan.
A more detailed analysis of the differences between the plans, by the way, was produced by the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Here is their key chart:
In contrast, Gov. LePage has tended to emphasize the total tax change.
I guess that makes sense since his plan would cut taxes less for the vast majority of Maine people. Also, tax collections would fall in the aggregate under his plan, while they would go up in the Democrats’ plan. But individuals are typically more concerned about their own taxes, and Democrats have 98% of cuts going to the bottom 95% of taxpayers.
3. Democrats are talking about how their plan and LePage’s are tied to their philosophies about how to grow Maine’s economy.
Democrats say that the bulk of funds are aimed at 95% of taxpayers because they see the state of the middle-class as critical to the Maine economy.
Those citizens will have the money to buy their kids’ shoes or go out to a diner and will put their money in the local economy. This helps those families and it helps the state prosper, as more funds circulate, keeping businesses going and growing.
In contrast, LePage contends that lower taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations will help the economy. It is a different philosophy, which has backfired badly in Kansas, and Democrats call it “trickle down economics.”
4. Democrats keep property taxes and the budget’s balance in mind.
So, so many people at the Bangor town meeting asked questions about property taxes. And, given that legislators tell me that this is what voters ask about, that makes sense.
While LePage would zero out revenue sharing and the homestead exemption for people under 65, the Democrats’ plan does neither. In fact, it would double the homestead exemption for everyone.
Moreover, while LePage’s plan leaves a $300 million gap between projected revenues and spending, Democrats do not. This, by itself, demonstrates a concern for responsible budgeting for the state. And the help for property taxpayers emphasizes a top tax concern for Mainers.
5. Democrats held an open meeting, while LePage’s public presentations are more controlled.
The atmosphere at the Bangor town meeting was wide open. If you wanted to ask a question, someone would come over with a microphone.
At one point, a line formed, as people moved to where one questioner stood. But, to make sure others, including several elderly people, could ask questions, the person with the microphone moved so their question could be addressed.
Based on reports about LePage’s meetings, this is not how his are run. In contrast, his press secretary controls the questions and their flow.
In fact, one man at the Bangor meeting mentioned this difference, saying he had attended LePage’s Ellsworth budget event and the format and feeling was very different.
The relative openness of the Democrats’ event is more like what Mainers expect. It also gives confidence that they are in fact willing to listen and to respond.
(Note: Since writing this post, I’ve been told questions were not screened at all of LePage’s town hall meetings.)