AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage touted state tax cuts that take effect this year and called for more structural changes to make Maine state government more friendly to business in a video his office released Thursday morning.
Titled “The Truth About Tax Cuts,” the five-minute video features LePage responding to questions posed by his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett. Both label the tax cuts enacted by the Republican-led 125th Legislature “the largest tax cut in Maine history.” Democrats have criticized the tax package because it leaves to the new Legislature the task of finding roughly $400,000 in state revenue decreases that the cuts impose in the upcoming biennial budget.
The cuts include reducing the top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent; eliminating the 2 percent tax bracket, which frees approximately 70,000 households from paying state income tax; higher exemptions for pension income; and a higher income threshold for the estate tax.
The governor also cited the elimination of a tax on meals served in retirement homes, calling the changes “common-sense reform that takes the tax burden off vulnerable Mainers.” He again mentioned Forbes Magazine’s ranking of Maine as the worst state in which to do business for the past three years as justification to consider further tax cuts, which he said stimulate the economy.
“Investment capital goes where it’s welcome and stays where it’s appreciated,” he said, pointing to a capital investment tax break approved by the previous Legislature.
LePage, who rarely speaks directly with the media, has increasingly relied on video and radio addresses to make public statements. Thursday’s video about taxes follows the governor’s earlier video messages on energy policy and his desire to make Medicaid cuts.
“You will see an increased presence from the governor on YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook,” Bennett said. She said the videos and new technology allow the governor to present his message in an uninterrupted way to Mainers.
“I think it’s a positive approach for Mainers,” she said.
In Thursday’s video, LePage quoted 1952 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II and former President Ronald Reagan. He also swiped at Democrats, who now hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
“I offer my opponents a bargain: If they stop telling lies about me, I’ll stop telling the truth about them,” LePage said, paraphrasing Stevenson in reference to Maine Democrats, whom he accused of mischaracterizing the tax cuts as breaks for the rich.
However, Bennett might have stretched the truth in asking LePage a question about a “push by Democrats to increase the tax rates to the higher rates of the past.” Democrats in the new Legislature have made no official call to roll back the new tax rates, but Bennett said it was Democrats’ campaigning against the tax cuts during 2012 legislative elections that spurred her question.
In a response issued Thursday afternoon, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, dismissed the video as an early salvo in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, noting that the Campaign to Re-Elect Governor Paul LePage circulated the video soon after the governor’s office released it.
Alfond also accused LePage and Bennett of distorting “Democratic lawmakers’ position on tax policy.”
“We have been clear about wanting to work with the governor and the Republicans,” Alfond said. “It continues to be our hope that we can start talking from a place where we have common ground. Unfortunately, the governor has not returned our requests to meet and discuss the state’s business. We hope in the days that follow that we can sit down with the governor and engage in a thoughtful conversation about how to move Maine forward.”
That appears unlikely.
Angry about being recorded at public events by a Maine Democratic Party tracker, LePage canceled an introductory meeting with Alfond and new House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, in December.
Bennett said LePage has no immediate plans to meet personally with Alfond and Eves, but that the governor’s office “has had an open line of communication with Democrats and will continue to do so.”
Meanwhile, the minority House Republicans stoked the political flames, with a release Thursday from Communications Director David Sorensen stating LePage “is absolutely right — the tax cuts benefit all Mainers by putting more money in the pockets of hardworking people and stimulating economic activity that in turn creates jobs. All of this is especially important since Democrats in Washington, D.C., let payroll taxes increase on everybody. Maine can’t afford another Democratic tax increase.”
LePage summoned Reagan’s words to close his message: “We know there’s a lot more to be done, but as Ronald Reagan once told both parties, ‘Put on your work shoes. We’re still on the job.’”
But as the budget-writing Appropriations Committee prepares to meet Friday to review LePage’s $35.5 million curtailment order, and other legislative committees start work with new Democratic leaders next week, tension in the State House runs high and those “work shoes” could easily become combat boots.