As Auburn’s former fire chief and a firefighter for more than 33 years, I have dealt with my fair share of emergencies. Putting out fires wasn’t always simple, but at the very least I knew to use water and not gasoline.
With that in mind, I have deep concerns about how Gov. Paul LePage’s budget will affect Maine’s cities and towns and all the people who live in them, particularly the middle class.
When I was running to become a state representative back in 2012, I spent more than six months going door to door, asking everyone what concerned them the most. Almost universally, I found that people of all stripes were struggling to get by, and many were just barely hanging on. They also told me they were sick of all the polarization and that they weren’t going to tolerate extreme ideas from either the right or the left.
That is why I was so disappointed to see the governor’s proposed budget for the next two years. The choices he wants to make will hurt nearly every Mainer — from the poor to the elderly and middle-class families to businesses of all sizes. Extreme doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The governor could have chosen another path. Almost half of Maine’s budget gap was caused by tax cuts that weren’t paid for that the governor signed into law.
But instead of acknowledging that we cannot afford to do that right now, the governor decided he wants to eliminate state funds to help the elderly pay for medicine and gut property tax relief through the Homestead Exemption and the Circuit Breaker Program, hurting thousands of Maine families and smothering the state’s already weak economy.
Even worse, the governor’s budget proposal shifts more than $400 million of the tax burden to Maine’s cities and towns. It suspends revenue sharing our communities rely upon for two years and dramatically reduces education funding that sustains our local schools.
Shifting that much of the state’s tax burden to the local level, as the governor proposes, would force mayors, town managers and selectmen to make a choice: either make the deepest cuts yet to all town services and schools, impose the largest property tax increase in decades, or do both at once. None of these options are acceptable.
According to an estimate by the Maine Municipal Association, Auburn would lose $7.4 million in revenue sharing over the next two years under this budget, Lewiston would lose $12.2 million, and all the other towns throughout Androscoggin County would take similar losses. Add in the cuts to education, and those numbers get even worse. I have spoken with local officials, and they all told me there is just no way either city could absorb such a blow.
The end result of this governor’s budget is essentially a $400 million tax increase on Maine families, mostly through the property tax.
Will you be able to afford that? Were you saving that money to pay for medicine, heat your home, or put food on the table? Are you bogged down with car payments or barely keeping up with your mortgage? Are costs going up while your wages stay the same?
What this governor’s budget says to all those questions is, “Too bad.”
We should all care about this, not just because of the unnecessary pain it causes so many Maine families, but because taking money out of the pockets of the middle class drags our entire state’s economy downward.
What we need instead is a balanced and responsible budget that won’t undercut our state’s economy or harm efforts to grow the middle class. All of us in the Maine House and Senate, no matter our political persuasion, will spend the next several months taking a hard look at each line of the governor’s budget, and I know that together we will find common ground and come up with something better.
Rep. Wayne Werts, D-Auburn, is a former chief of the Auburn Fire Department and serves on the Transportation Committee.