Rep. Nate Libby: State must keep promise to towns, cities

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What a difference a few years can make.

It wasn’t too long ago that then-Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, in a profanity-laden rant, blasted proposed cuts to revenue sharing because it would hurt taxpayers in his city.

Now, as governor, he bombastically asserts “revenue sharing is welfare for municipalities,” and continues his mission to eliminate what truly is a property tax reduction program to pay for his $500 million state income tax cut for the wealthy.

As semi-annual property tax bills have landed in mailboxes across Maine, residents should note that recent property tax increases are a direct result of the priorities of the LePage administration and its allies, favoring the interest of Maine’s wealthiest over the real-life financial consequences for the rest of the people.

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Now, further cuts to revenue sharing are before the Legislature. The alternatives are ugly. The potential impacts on our communities are very real.

Lewiston stands to lose approximately $2 million. This cut is on top of the $3.5 million loss in revenue sharing during the past several years. To make up the difference, Lewiston could eliminate 38 sworn officer positions (almost half of all officers) in its police department. Or it could close the library, eliminate code enforcement and shut down City Hall.

Under the longstanding practice of revenue sharing, the state provides cities and towns a percentage of income and sales taxes it collects. It is a recognition of the services that municipalities provide to keep Maine’s economy running.

The governor tried to eliminate those funds for cities and towns altogether, but the Legislature restored about 40 percent of the funds owed to municipalities, as called for by state law, in a bipartisan compromise budget last year.

Revenue sharing is under attack again, with the governor and his allies continuing to push municipalities, particularly service centers like Lewiston and Auburn, deeper into a protracted, worsening budget crisis.

In the current scenario of diminished funds for municipalities, the state has a responsibility to provide towns and cities $61 million in 2015. For Maine to meet this obligation, we must find $40 million in savings as was agreed to in the biennial budget. Otherwise, overall revenue sharing will fall to $21 million.

In local terms, that translates to Lewiston being shortchanged to the tune of $5.5 million. Cuts of that magnitude are simply unacceptable, particularly when our local economies are struggling to recover from one of the worst recessions in decades.

To avoid the devastating result for property taxpayers, my colleagues, Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, have introduced a bill to ensure that the Legislature can keep the $40 million for these funds in place for the towns and cities.

I am committed to working with my State House colleagues to keep the state’s promise to Maine’s property taxpayers. We were able to avoid the governor’s planned wholesale elimination of those funds by crafting a bipartisan budget. We need to work together again to make sure the state keeps the $40 million in place that is promised in the budget.

The economic activity that spurs state sales and income tax revenues takes place in service centers like Lewiston. As such, our city deserves a share of these state revenues so that they can maintain the streets, plow the sidewalks, patrol the neighborhoods, and keep the local economy moving.

Residents cannot afford to pay more in property taxes each year. The governor’s “solution” — to pass costs on to local communities — is not the answer. During these trying fiscal times, the people of Lewiston depend, now more than ever, upon the essential services cities provide.

It is time for the governor and his allies to step up and own up to the promises to made to Maine’s cities and towns.

Rep. Nate Libby is a Democrat representing part of Lewiston in the Maine House of Representatives. He serves on the Legislature’s Taxation Committee and is a member of the Lewiston City Council.

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