It’s time to stop property-tax cheats

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Wouldn’t it be entertaining if, at the end of each legislative session, the voting public could hold a contest for the most absurd bill considered for passage?

We have a contender.

LD 1470 is a much-amended concept bill which, in its original draft, would have required property owners enrolled in the state’s Tree Growth Tax Law program to actually harvest timber as required under a timber management plan.

That is good, but the legislative tinkering that has gone into drafting this concept is not.

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Senate President Kevin Raye proposed LD 1470 last April, and the carryover legislation has gained great attention in recent months as questions swirl around State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin’s as-yet-unexplained tax shield on 10 acres of seaside property in Georgetown. That property is preserved in trust which bans harvest, but also is enrolled in Tree Growth which mandates harvest.

As a concept draft, Raye’s bill “proposes to ensure that future applicants for classification of land under the Maine Tree Growth Act are eligible only if they are actually engaged in harvesting timber and not using the land as a property tax shelter without harvesting.”

You’d think that property owners would already understand that if they place land in Tree Growth, they must harvest trees, since that is an existing requirement under the Tree Growth Tax Law. So we need a new law to enforce an existing law?

That’s a question the Committee on Taxation has grappled with since the Jan. 17 public hearing on LD 1470 and six subsequent work sessions (which is a lot of work sessions in the world of legislation), and still there is no language actually attached to the inspiring title: “An Act to Ensure Harvesting of Timber on Land Taxed under the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law.”

According to the Maine Municipal Association’s legislative bulletin, while considering enforcement measures, tax committee members established a stakeholders group to make recommendations for compliance, including the possibility of a new compliance authority.

Members of the stakeholders group were the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, the Maine Forest Products Council and members of Gov. Paul LePage and Sen. Raye’s staffs.

What?

No citizen taxpayers? The people who are most affected when their neighbors are cheating on property taxes?

And no municipal tax assessors? The folks who set and monitor property valuations?

And no town managers or administrators? The people responsible for crafting budgets and enforcing tax collection?

The stakeholders group, according to MMA, drafted a couple of amendments. The one before the Taxation Committee does not grant any compliance authority to anyone. Sen. Raye’s concept of “enforcement” has been lost.

This bill maintains the status quo, which is goofy: Multiple municipal officials have testified that some property owners — especially along the seashore — are using Tree Growth to avoid paying their full share of property taxes.

That has to stop.

The only conclusion we can draw is that the Republican majority in Maine’s Legislature does not want to offend the state treasurer or seem to be questioning Poliquin’s personal Tree Growth enrollment.

What could be said or done to offend?

As written in concept, the bill wouldn’t even apply to Poliquin, only to “future applicants.”

Poliquin’s personal situation was not a consideration when Sen. Raye proposed this bill, and should not be a consideration in making this concept of enforcement a reality.

This is about ensuring compliance in all municipalities among all property owners. This is about stopping the tax cheats.

If property owners are improperly shielding land in Tree Growth and paying less property tax than they should be, other property owners are picking up a disproportionate share of taxes. These property owners — otherwise known as constituents — deserve and expect legislators to protect them by enforcing tax compliance for all.

As it stands, LD 1470 doesn’t do that.

LD 1138, another Tree Growth compliance bill that the Committee on Taxation has already voted “ought to pass,” comes closer,

Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, sponsored this bill last March to require landowners to harvest timber as pledged under Tree Growth, or face a $100 administrative penalty for noncompliance.

Further, if a municipal tax assessor finds a landowner has not complied with provisions of a timber plan, the landowner would have a year to comply or be forced to remove the land from Tree Growth.

Removal would trigger a withdrawal penalty and the land would be subject to full property-tax valuation.

This is a good step, but a $100 fine is hardly a deterrent to a tax cheat. Make it $1,000, preserve the threat of paying full valuation, require timber harvest plans to be public, and we’re looking at real compliance measures.

Without such firm compliance, cheaters win and taxpayers lose.

That is absurd.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

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

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