The Maine Legislature has less than two months to craft and enact its next two-year budget. Education, social services, public safety, infrastructure and veterans services all hang in the balance.

Fortunately, the state is in a better position financially than it has been at any point during my time in the Legislature. Years after the rest of New England pulled through the Great Recession, Maine has finally recovered all the jobs lost as a result of the market crash in 2007. Unemployment is down and revenues are set to outpace expenses by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The economy is humming and a state surplus is forecast, but that doesn’t mean all is well for Maine families. The average Maine family has seen their property taxes grow to untenable levels while essential services have been cut, all while Maine’s highest earners have seen unprecedented income tax cuts. Maine schools continue to operate on shoestring budgets that jeopardize their ability to prepare our children for their futures.

These are the realities that must set the parameters for this year’s budget negotiations. With no fiscal crisis at hand, and unmet needs on the ground, now is not a time for austerity.

It is time for a budget that balances the scales and makes the state’s tax system more fair. That begins with real property tax relief. A fair tax system is one that is evenly balanced between the progressive income tax, the sales tax and the property tax. But in the past several years, the property tax has ballooned to represent 50 percent of the average Mainers’ tax burden.

That imbalance threatens the ability of seniors and families to stay in their homes, and is among the biggest concerns I hear about from residents of Lewiston and Mainers across the state. Democrats’ budget proposal, The Opportunity Agenda, increases funding for direct property tax relief programs and reduces the need for property tax hikes by increasing state funding for local services and education.

It is time for a budget that asks Maine’s highest earners to pay their fair share so that we can fully fund public schools for the first time in more than a decade — just like voters demanded when they passed Question 2 on Election Day last year.

Voters have twice taken to the ballot box to make sure Maine meets its commitment to its students. Yet we’ve heard three top Republican lawmakers say they’re willing to shut down state government if they don’t get a new tax cut for the wealthiest that would jeopardize funding for Maine’s schools. So far, that’s the only budget goal they’ve set.

It’s time for Republicans to get real: Income inequality is on the rise in Maine, just as it is across the country. The wealthy are seeing their fortunes grow as middle-class families face stiff property tax increases and underfunded schools. That’s why I will not support any budget that ignores the will of the voters just to fund more giveaways for the rich at the expense of our students and public schools.

Our budget fully funds public education. It lowers property taxes. It rejects the governor’s harmful cuts in health care, which threaten access to doctors and jobs in our city at a time when Central Maine Medical Center is already laying off staff to balance its budget.

It also includes a first-of-its kind student debt relief program that will help thousands of Mainers escape the crushing weight of college loans. Debt from student loans has surpassed credit card and auto loan debt. Tuition costs have increased 260 percent since 1980. With no other option, an entire generation has taken on colossal loans from all-too-eager lenders who turned those students’ hopes and dreams into huge corporate profits.

The burden prevents Mainers from buying homes and from starting families or new businesses. A bill I’ve proposed as part of the Opportunity Agenda would combine forgiveness and low-interest refinancing to unleash the economic power of a generation of graduates that has been held back for too long.

A fair budget, a fair economy and a fair tax system is one that serves the largest number of people, not one that prioritizes tax cuts for the rich at the expense of everyone else. It’s one that recognizes where inequality exists, and takes steps to correct it, not exacerbate it. It’s one that respects the will of the voters, and gives the average, hardworking Mainer a chance to succeed and thrive.

That’s what the Opportunity Agenda is all about. It uses projected revenue to invest in Maine people, all without raising a single cent in new taxes.

I’ve participated in 10 town hall events across the state, and talked to hundreds of Mainers from Fort Kent to Scarborough. I’m confident standing behind the budget plan Democrats have put on the table. But we can’t negotiate alone, and we are still waiting to hear the Republican budget plan.

The Legislature must enact a state budget by the end of June or Mainers will pay the price. It is time to have a real negotiation, in full view of the public, about our competing visions for our state.

State Sen. Nate Libby, Democrat, represents Senate District 21. He lives in Lewiston.

Nate Libby

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: