Secrecy offers the ‘gift’ of accusations

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Maine State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin is having a Mitt Romney moment.

Under fire for placing 10 acres of his 12.3-acre Georgetown property in so-called tree growth, Mr. Poliquin has been reluctant to answer the accusation that — perhaps — he doesn’t qualify for the property-tax break.

The Forest Management and Harvest Plan filed in his hometown is confidential and, in the absence of any explanation, assumptions — true or false — have bloomed.

It’s no wonder. The tax break Poliquin receives under the management plan totals $5,000 a year. Over time, that’s a lot of money.

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GOP presidential candidate Romney knows all about the heat of assumptions.

Romney opponents called for him to release his personal tax returns. He refused and, during a January CNN debate, was booed for doing so.

His explanation in withholding the returns was simple, he said. “I want to beat Barack Obama. I don’t want to give the Democrats a nice little present” by releasing personal financials early and again after April 15.

Refusing to release the returns appears to have been gift enough: Opponents battered him for weeks for his “secrecy.” Romney eventually relented and, while eyeballs may have popped at the revelation of such staggering wealth, the criticisms of his obstinacy and secrecy abated.

Poliquin has the same opportunity to end public speculation by making his tree growth plan public.

Democrats called on him to do so Thursday, and resisting that request will only enable continued — and perhaps more heated — criticism. Guaranteed.

The Poliquin situation first came to light in 2009 when the Maine Forest Service issued a report identifying the acreage he placed in tree growth as an example of potential misuse of Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law. In that report, the Maine Municipal Association also pointed to Poliquin’s tax break as a possible problem, to which it was alerted after asking members/assessors to identify properties that might be abusing tree growth.

And, by “abusing tree growth,” we mean dodging taxes.

Lawmakers are considering forming a study group this year to evaluate tree growth, including its possible abuses and potential enforcement, but we question whether further study is really necessary.

The 2009 Maine Forest Service report is not that old, and amazingly enough, the sitting Legislature at that time never reviewed the document. So, rather than launch a whole ’nother study effort, doesn’t it make more sense to first look at an existing study that hasn’t even been cracked open?

We think so, and salute MMA Director of State & Federal Relations Geoff Herman for distributing the report to current lawmakers so they can see the work that’s already — and recently — been done.

Really, how many more times can lawmakers take delivery of a study that points out a potential issue that would mean thousands of dollars to Maine’s municipalities and let it sit on the shelf?

MMA members have been clear that inappropriate placement of property in tree growth for the tax break is a statewide problem, especially along the coast. Our towns are losing revenue as landowners shield forestland they never intend to harvest, and there’s really no enforcement to hold them accountable.

That’s a burden Maine’s law-abiding taxpayers definitely don’t deserve.

We have one more suggestion: Define harvest management plans as public records, forcing them into the light of public scrutiny.

These management plans are now considered proprietary and, therefore, confidential, which means it’s impossible for anyone to ensure these plans are being followed.

Tax breaks received under Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law should be public, much like TIFs and other tax breaks given out by the state and other governmental agencies.

Anything less is an invitation to fraud, which punishes everyone who is dutifully paying their fair share of taxes.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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