Peggy Rotundo: Keeping our promise to Maine’s cities and towns

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Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature recently came together to honor the state’s funding promise to local communities. This bipartisan work paid off: the measure which I sponsored to preserve state funding for towns and cities and prevent property tax hikes is now law.

When this vital funding for communities appeared to be at risk, hundreds of Mainers came to the State House to make sure their voices were heard. Firefighters, police officers and municipal officials, including Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, were among the Mainers who made sure that the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, which I co-chair, heard their message.

Other lawmakers throughout the capitol heard their message, too.

These Mainers came from our largest cities and our smallest towns to tell us that their communities and property taxpayers are stretched to the brink. From Presque Isle to South Berwick, from Fryeburg to Calais, and everywhere in between, the message was clear.

Earlier this month, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed my bill to protect $40 million for local communities. Those funds were promised under a longstanding practice called revenue sharing, where local communities get back a small portion of the sales and income taxes collected by the state.

Gov. Paul LePage labels revenue sharing as “welfare” for communities. I — and Mainers across the state — strongly disagree with the governor. The governor had threatened to veto this measure, but he must have also heard the voices of Mainers. The measure became law without the governor’s signature at midnight Tuesday.

If the state hadn’t keep its promise, communities would have faced the awful choice of slashing — if not eliminating — services, or asking property taxpayers to pay more. It is likely that many communities would have had to do both.

Lewiston would have lost about $2 million in funds. That’s a sum that represents about half of the police department’s officers.

Auburn, meanwhile, was threatened with a cut of approximately $1 million — or the costs of maintaining roads or operating the public library.

Revenue sharing recognizes the contribution of local communities — such as Lewiston and Auburn — to the state’s overall economy. And it helps communities provide vital services like road maintenance, first responders and schools while keeping property taxes in check for residents and businesses.

The state’s funding promise to towns helps young families, elderly neighbors who want to stay in their homes and working Mainers struggling with tight household budgets and stagnating wages.

These funds for towns and cities help our local Main Street businesses that form the backbone of our economy. It helps communities attract business, too.

It is not the first time that lawmakers have come together to prevent a shift of enormous expenses onto local property taxpayers and the middle class.

Last session, the governor proposed slashing all these funds to local communities. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle came together. We did not allow him to do that.

But these funds for towns and cities remained under threat. That is why I, along with my co-chairman, Sen. Dawn Hill of York, introduced that measure addressing the $40 million.

Among the Mainers who came to testify on our bill was a local official worried about her constituents. She told us about the 90-year-old widow who lives in the house where she was born and wants to remain there. She talked about the clammers and fishermen whose families have lived by the water for generations and want to remain there. She talked about the farmers who work the land and the middle-class families trying to keep up. She told us how they and others would be hurt if the state broke its promise to communities.

Those are the kind of stories that we kept in mind as we fought to protect these funds, that motivate us when they are under attack and that will help us succeed if a threat arises again.

These are the stories of our Maine neighbors who sent us to the State House to do the right thing.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, is House chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

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