Maine Democrats Compromise Principles

Last night, Democrats in the Maine Legislature caved on a vital part of the state budget. Following a long string of compromises from Democrats with no public movement from Republicans toward the center, Democrats on the Appropriations Committee said they are now taking even a delay of the LePage tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy “off the table” as an option for dealing with the looming budget gap.

If Democrats ran on one issue during the legislative elections last year, it was fair taxes and opposition to these tax cuts for the wealthy.

Take a look, for instance, at the catalogue of campaign mailers collected by Bangor Daily News online editor William P. Davis in one of the most heavily contested Senate district in the state. The most prominent attack on Nichi Farnham from Democrats (aside from her campaign ethics issues, which were specific to her race) was that she had voted for the tax cuts for wealthy.

The same was true for the Republican Representative in the district, Doug Damon. The lead bullet on mailer after mailer after mailer sent against him by the Democratic Party was always “gave a tax cut to the rich.”

The message was identical in races across the state: “Democrats are on the side of the middle class, Republicans are on the side of the wealthy and large corporations.”

Democrats didn’t choose this as their major issue just because it’s good policy. Their message on taxes is also incredibly popular. For the same reason, President Obama made tax fairness central to his campaign for re-election. It was a mantra he repeated in television ads and in public statements, and he made repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy his first major goal after his second inauguration.

Interestingly, the tax cuts were also one of the lead issues for Republicans in Maine. In that Bangor Senate race, for instance, the most prominent Republican attack against now-Senator Geoff Gratwick was to label him “Dr. Taxes,” specifically because of his opposition to the LePage tax cuts for the wealthy. The same line of attack was used in the GOP materials for races across the state.

We know whose message on the tax cuts worked and who won that election, overwhelmingly.

If Democrats can claim a mandate from Maine people on anything following that vote, it is unquestionably the idea of tax fairness.

This recent history is one of the reasons why it was so crushingly disappointing to listen to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee meeting last night as they discussed revenue options in the state budget.

At around 7:30pm, soon after the committee members returned to the table from a caucusing break, Senator Emily Cain announced that Democrats would no longer be asking for any delay of the LePage tax cuts.

“On behalf of our caucus, I want to take off the table the push or repeal of the 125th tax cuts,” said Cain. “Our hope is that that opens the door to a higher level and more intense level, more public conversation about the role of revenue that we see as essential to closing this budget at all, let alone in the next 48 hours.”

Cain’s hopes that the move would open a door to a public conversation on Republican revenue plans were quickly dashed. Republican Senator Patrick Flood offered nothing in return other than his personal appreciation: “Opening with that was a good gesture and was the right time and the right thing to do. We very much appreciate it. I just wanted to say thanks,” said Flood.

Republican Representative Kathleen Chase took the opportunity to publicly rule out any talk of tax increases completely and instead insist on more cuts: “At this point, we’re just not ready to look at any revenues, until in our minds and our hearts and our caucus and our people we feel that there has been enough or at least some more promising savings proposed, and that’s simply where we are.”

The move by Democratic members of the committee was also disappointing for how quickly it came on the heels of Democrats in the Legislature seeming to get serious about the issue of fair taxes.

From the beginning of the session, state-level Democrats were much slower than their federal counterparts to make tax fairness a real part of their legislative priorities. Several members of Democratic leadership signed on to Rep. Seth Berry’s bill to help close the budget gap by making income tax rates more fair, and there were other bills that addressed the issue submitted, but for the most part they left the work on taxes to the committees.

The first press conference they held on the issue came last week, when they laid out their budget solution: delaying the LePage tax breaks for the wealthy. It wasn’t the most fair option when it comes to addressing inequality in the tax system (Berry’s bill and some of the others are more progressive), but it had the virtue of being simple and straightforward and allowing them to talk about how the unfunded tax cuts helped to cause the budget hole in the first place.

Last night, less than a week after the press conference, even that option was conceded.

I understand that the members of the Appropriations Committee are in a difficult position. There are vital health care and education programs at stake and they’re dealing with a Republican Party that has become so radicalized by the Tea Party and so bound up in the fortunes and attitude of Governor Paul LePage that compromise itself has become blasphemy. It’s hard to negotiate with people whose loudest constituency seems to want to see things fall apart.

Perhaps Democrats did get something in return. Perhaps in a back room somewhere they had made a deal that their public concessions would later prompt some movement on the other side, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way. Regardless, the things they’re now asking that Republicans support, like increasing sales taxes, are no longer fair solutions. A sales tax increase could be just as regressive as the property tax increases they’re seeking to prevent.

Giving up on delaying the tax cuts and failing to talk about other ways of making the wealthy and corporations bear some of the burden of this budget isn’t just a policy concession, it’s the compromising of a fundamental principle. For it to be given and nothing tangible received in return seems ludicrous.

There are only a few days left for the budget negotiations to take place. I hope there’s still enough time for some aspect of what’s been taken off the table to be put back on.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a political column for the Portland Press Herald