It would be great to say, by next April 15, Maine has the best tax system in the land.

For many years there’s been criticism from all sides about Maine’s tax system. The property tax we use today reflects our heritage as a 19th century agricultural economy, when land represented wealth. Our business taxes reflect the old centralized manufacturing economy and not the new, predominantly service economy.

Financial experts have been criticizing tax systems like Maine’s for years, and we’ve looked at ways to reform it.

In 1990, the Taxation Committee led an effort to broaden the sales tax. It got nowhere.

In 1997, the Maine Municipal Association presented a wide-ranging proposal, but the only part adopted was the Homestead Exemption.

In the last legislative session, the House adopted a plan from Rep. Barney McGowan that would have provided 55 percent of General Purpose Aid to Education, but the Senate didn’t go along.

We’re getting there. The difference between now and 10 years ago, is that citizens have joined the fray. Many freshman legislators say tax reform is their highest priority, and their constituents agree. Gov. Baldacci lists tax reform right after the budget and health care reform, and it’s at the top of my legislative agenda.

Nearly everyone is talking about tax reform, but how do we do it? How do we get started? There are already many plans out there, but reform is difficult and complex. Most of it involves a tradeoff, cutting taxes where we agree they’re too high and making up the revenue somewhere else.

I put my trust in the legislative system, and we’ll start in the same place we did years ago – in the Taxation Committee.

Today, April 15 – the day Americans file their income tax returns – will also be a day for Mainers to share their ideas about tax reform.

The tax committee will be hearing 10 reform bills that provide a wonderful variety of ideas. MMA’s initiated bill for a school funding referendum will be on the list, and so will be Rep. McGowan’s proposal and a host of others, including comprehensive bills from Rep. Ben Dudley and Rep. Peter Mills.

There’s plenty to think about and talk about, and we hope that’s exactly what people will do.

My House chair, David Lemoine, tells me the committee will hear 200 bills this session – possibly a record – but this is the day he’s most looked forward to.

Ultimately, the committee will put the best ideas into a package that represents the fairest, soundest and most efficient tax system they can devise. Gov. Baldacci will also put forth his own ideas. The governor has a unique position in our constitutional system, and this governor has a lot of credibility with legislators. He’s worked hard to earn our trust, and I know he’s also an excellent listener.

Like every other Mainer, I have some of my own ideas about tax reform.

We need to create a system that provides more consistent revenues, and get out from under the boom-and-bust cycle that led to a $1.2 billion shortfall this year. The governor has said, and I agree with him, that we need to repeal the personal property tax on business equipment. It’s a tax that no longer serves us well when we’re trying to create investment for more manufacturing jobs.

And we need to give Maine residents a tax break, particularly working families. Most states that rely on tourism do a much better job than we do at getting tourists to help pay for educating our kids and take care of our senior citizens. We should export some of our taxes, and we can do it through comprehensive tax reform.

And that’s the main point. Changing one tax may help, but looking at the whole system is much better.

We’ve cut taxes during my time in the Legislature, and we’ve balanced budgets in difficult circumstances. But people are not yet satisfied, and they probably won’t be until we’ve put everything on the table.

There are many who say it can’t be done. They said that about the budget too, and we passed it in record time. We know how to work together. We can do this.

But we need your help. Talk to your legislator. Write to us with your ideas. By the time next April 15 rolls around, I’d like to be able to say that Maine has the best tax system in the nation.

House Speaker Pat Cowell represents District 91 in Gardiner.

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