Baldacci stresses tax relief

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AUGUSTA – Vowing to deliver property tax relief, grow wages for workers and reinvent K-12 education, Gov. John Baldacci was sworn into office for his second term Wednesday night.

In a 23-minute speech, Baldacci touched on broad themes and echoed proposals that accompanied him on the campaign trail. He also worked to undo many of the myths that he said have zapped the state’s “can-do” spirit.

He called on the Legislature to send to voters a constitutional amendment that would cap property values for year-round residents, a policy proposal that failed earlier in the Legislature, and promised that more funding for education would be passed directly onto homeowners for immediate tax relief.

“With the budget I will be submitting Friday, the state will have met the commitment that the people of Maine voted for, to have the state pay 55 percent of local education costs,” Baldacci said. “But this year I am going to insist that the savings available from increased funding be directly passed on to taxpayers for immediate property tax relief.”

He also outlined his plan to cut the number of school superintendents in the state from 152 to just 26, saving $250 million in the first three years.

“Maine has twice the number of school district officials per student than the national average,” Baldacci said. “We spend $2,000 more per student than the national average, and pay our teachers $7,000 less. We can and we will do better.”

Baldacci took his oath of office with his son Jack holding the Bible and first lady Karen Baldacci standing to his left. At least 2,800 people gathered to watch the ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center.

The two-day celebration marking Baldacci’s hold on the Blaine House will turn to the details of governing on Friday, when governor’s proposed two-year budget will be released.

Budget specifics have been closely guarded, but indications are that Baldacci will push for reductions in state government, more cooperation among school districts and aggressive investment in economic development.

Republican legislative leaders were quick to give the governor his due Wednesday night but weren’t ready to submit to his policy prescriptions without more information.

House Minority Leader Josh Tardy of Newport said Republicans favor increasing efficiencies in education, but it would take more than lip service to balance the budget without tax increases.

“I want to hear more about it,” Tardy said. “We’ll have to give that proposal a chance, but I think it’s going to face significant political hurdles.”

Senate assistant Republican Leader Richard Rosen of Bucksport concurred.

“The immediate questions we’ll be asking: How does this impact local control and home rule?” Rosen said, adding that the salaries of Maine’s school superintendents amount to just $15 million, a far cry from the savings the governor promised.

Rosen also was skeptical of Baldacci’s proposal to freeze property values.

“It’s an idea that sounds appealing in a sound bite or on a bumper sticker, but it has had a history in other states of ultimately creating a great deal of unfairness,” Rosen said.

Tardy said that if it was a “lift and shift” proposal, then it would go nowhere, but it could win support if its part of broader tax reform and reduced government spending.

Baldacci also talked about the need for the state to invest in economic development and to continue to grow wages.

“We will raise incomes by making investments in key areas to prepare Maine people for good-paying jobs in the private sector,” Baldacci said. “Our people can compete anywhere in the world, but we need to build our capacity and our competitive edge.”

And he talked about the things that his administration has accomplished in the last four years.

“When we in Maine look back at the first years of this new century – an era driven by technology and innovation and a knowledge-based economy – one critically important action will stand out: the creation of Maine’s community college system.”

He also sought to dispel the pessimism that permeated the campaigns of Baldacci’s electoral opponents.

“All you hear are claims about what’s wrong with Maine,” Baldacci said of the gubernatorial campaign. “I know this may shock you, but not everything you hear in a political campaign is 100 percent accurate.

“You might have heard that people are leaving Maine, but, in fact, we have the fifth highest rate of any state in the country of people moving into our state,” Baldacci said.

He bragged about the state’s growing exports, quality of life and wage growth.

“You probably didn’t hear that Maine’s tax burden is coming down while incomes are on the way up,” Baldacci said. “In fact, Maine’s average income is at an all-time high, and our goal is to keep it going.”

Baldacci was elected to a second term in November. He built a solid margin over the second-place finisher, beating Republican Chandler Woodcock by eight points, but managed only a plurality of the overall vote in the five-way race.

In his speech, Baldacci took a slap at the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which was rejected by voters in November, calling it “divisive” and with “out-of-state” origins.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston of Montville took exception to that.

“The Taxpayer Bill of Rights received more votes than the governor did in the last election,” she said. “I can’t dismiss the concerns of the 46 percent of the state that voted as much as he did.”

Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings, a Portland Democrat, was more enthusiastic about Baldacci’s speech.

“He set a tone of action and sent a clear message,” Cummings said. “The governor is showing that he’s not afraid to tackle the tough issues facing the state.”

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