“Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

So said, Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, the colorful speaker of the California State Assembly in the 1960s and later state treasurer for 12 years.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci hasn’t collected a cool political nickname yet, and with campaign finance laws as they are, money isn’t as big a factor here as in Washington or, apparently, California.

Still, it would be naive to think money doesn’t open doors and get phone calls returned in Augusta. And, when millions of dollars are on the line, as they were in last year’s tax-reform debate, that’s important.

In a long investigative piece Thursday, John Christie, of the newly established Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, put together what some contend is the money trail behind the governor’s decision last year to go to bat for skiers, golfers and high-end home buyers in last year’s tax reform battle.

Those industries have a long history of making campaign donations to the governor, and they are able to hire some of the most influential lobbyists in Augusta. And, in the end, they got what they wanted.

But a quid pro quo is tough to establish. The governor didn’t totally throw in with the wealthy and powerful.

He
also demanded an Earned Income Tax refundability provision be included in the final bill, which will help offset
sales tax increases for the state’s poorest residents, and he required
more money be spent on promoting tourism in the state.

Plus, a couple of interests with powerful lobbyists in Augusta — the food,
beverage and lodging industries — lobbied hard for tax relief but got none from the governor’s office.

The only safe conclusion is that private money injected into politics will forever cloud the process, and that is not likely to change. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that campaign donations are a form of political expression protected by the Constitution.

Yes, the governor had an impact on the final bill. Whether his stand was the result of  true belief, long-standing friendships or campaign donations — or some combination of these influences — is impossible to determine.

This we do know: Despite a couple of high-profile inconsistencies, the tax-reform bill approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor is the right thing for Maine. It would cut the state’s top income tax rate from 8.5 to 6.5 percent, while making up much of the revenue from visitors.

This switch has been recommended by
economists and economic development experts for years, and is expected
to help stabilize Maine’s tax revenue stream and shift more of the tax
burden to wealthier out-of-staters.

While Mainers will now pay sales tax on some new services, the Maine Revenue Service has determined that 90 percent of us will come out ahead.

The conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called the reform package a “Maine Miracle” and predicted it would make the state a more attractive business destination. And, boy, do we need that.

Mainers should oppose all efforts to repeal this true reform.

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Disclosure: The Sun Journal is a member of the Maine Press Association, which does not make political contributions, but which has in the past lobbied against a sales tax on newspapers.


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