LEWISTON – It was one of THE big items on the Legislature’s agenda. Regardless of what else happened, property tax relief would finally be granted to Maine taxpayers this session, or so everyone thought.

So tax relief advocates were dismayed when the Legislature went on break April 17 – four days before the target adjournment date – without a plan.

The optimistic say hope remains alive; lawmakers will reconvene for a few days starting Tuesday. Critics say time is slipping away.

And the foot-dragging, some observe, will make voters all the more eager to vote for tax relief referendums coming up in June and November, one of which would cap all property taxes at 1 percent of assessed income – far below the current rates.

“I’ll probably vote for the tax cap just to get their attention,” said homeowner Kenneth Hewitt of Minot. “We’re getting killed.”

“Property taxes is the hot-button issue. People are upset that the issue isn’t being addressed by the Legislature,” said Jim Simones of Greene, owner of Simones Hot Dog restaurant in Lewiston and candidate for state Senate.

As Simones knocks on doors people tell him they want relief, and “it seems to be going nowhere fast” in Augusta, Simones said. “(Residents) want to vote on some property tax relief. They’re not looking at the consequences. They just know they want to do something, and by going to the ballot box, that’s what they can do.”

As the Legislature convened last January, Gov. John Baldacci and top lawmakers pledged that property tax relief would be a top priority this session, which was supposed to adjourn by April 21. As May approaches and the Legislature busts its deadline, lawmakers remain divided on what to do.

Republicans want to cap state spending, and then use the constant growth in state tax revenues to eventually provide local property tax relief.

Democrats want to raise state taxes to give property tax relief to homeowners, but are divided on how. House Democrats are considering raising “sin” taxes – wine, beer and cigarettes. Senate Democrats want to ask voters in another referendum to raise the sales tax one cent on the dollar.

Meanwhile, Baldacci has his own plan – a mixture of ideas – that hasn’t attracted much support. He’s opposed to raising the sales tax, but will look at raising sin taxes.

“They have nine different plans and each one is just a Band-Aid approach,” said Carol Palesky, whose Maine Taxpayer Action Network put the property tax cap plan on the ballot for November – unless lawmakers vote, as the Senate has, to place it on the June ballot.

Legislators are “cowards” for going home without agreeing, she said. “The various plans don’t offer relief to everyone” and will fail, Palesky predicted.

Phil Harriman, a former state senator from Yarmouth who leads “Tax Cap YES!” to urge passage of the tax cap, said he hopes lawmakers benefit from their April vacation “and get a good dose of what’s concerning constituents.”

Harriman questions how much could be done now by lawmakers at this point in the session. They should not have expanded programs, including health and education, he said. In the budget now facing lawmakers, “they’ve spent every source of revenue and deployed accounting gimmicks to balance the budget. … There’s no way to fund property taxes,” Harriman said. “The clock is still ticking and not much time is left.”

House Speaker Patrick Colwell acknowledged last week there’s not a lot of time – nor a lot of support for any one program – but said passing something “is possible and doable.”

The Senate’s higher sales tax plan won’t work, Colwell said, because the governor would veto it. Colwell is optimistic the House plan can get support this week from enough Democrats and Republicans to happen.

“We’ve had a great couple of days with House Republicans,” Colwell said, referring to behind-the-scenes discussions among leadership during the break. Republicans are insisting on adding spending caps to the Constitution, something Democrats don’t support, “but I haven’t dismissed that,” Colwell said. “I want nothing more than to have bi-partisan agreement.”

If he’s able to get the package passed, it would provide “real” property tax relief that would fare well against Palesky’s tax cap referendum, Colwell predicted.

In 2006-07, many Lewiston-Auburn homeowners with annual household incomes under $80,000 would receive nearly $1,000 in tax relief under the House plan, Colwell said. Everyone would get something, but more help would go to senior citizens and others most in need.

Over lunch at Simones’ last week, Woolwich homeowner Christian Corbett said he’d like to see “something happen” to make property taxation more equitable. “There needs to be a fair disbursement of taxes,” he said.

It’s not right, Corbett said, that Mainers are being taxed out of homes because those homes have risen in value. “My family’s from Down East. If you’re on the water and you can’t afford it, you’re going to be SOL (out of luck).”


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