When I was growing up my family watched the Wizard of OZ every year. Do you remember the scene in which the curtain is pulled aside revealing the real identity of the wizard, a man with no real wizardry, saying “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”? Well I have to tell you the curtain has been pulled aside again, this time on the economic policies and priorities of the current administration, and the GOP-led legislature.
The truth is that many Maine people are worse off, not better, and paying more for less. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Earlier this month the independent, nonpartisan organization, Maine Center for Economic Policy, released a report analyzing the tax policies and priorities of the last legislature.
Here’s what they found:
Two hundred and seventy thousand Mainers earning $42,000 or less are paying more in taxes.
The wealthiest one percent, earning more than $323,000 a year, are paying a lot less.
And our towns are forced to slash critical town services—letting our local roads crumble, closing or cutting hours at our libraries, or laying off teachers and first responders.
The problem with this slash and burn approach is that, at the end of the day, we are hurting our community. We can all agree to making government more efficient and frugal, but at some point, regardless of how much cutting you do, there is a baseline cost for keeping the lights on and the doors open.
There is a cause and effect to the Republican priority of giving tax breaks to the wealthy; pushing costs onto our towns and asking the local taxpayer to foot the bill.
They’ve created false choices—one where towns are being forced to deplete reserves, cut services, or raise property taxes. It is unfair and not sustainable.
Frankly, the conclusions of this report are not surprising. It confirms what many of us have been feeling across the state, that property taxes are increasing. Towns and taxpayers are feeling the financial squeeze like never before. We are being asked to do more with less—often with so much less, that essential services like police, fire, and rescue are on life support.
I have seen this first hand with the hard choices many of the towns in my district are faced with. Take Damariscotta. Because of the cost shift, they have proposed eliminating the police department in order to save the town money it lost in state revenue sharing. Many residents and local businesses are concerned about what this may mean for their public safety—and rightly so, especially when they have clearly stated their willingness to pay more in property taxes to keep the local police department on duty. Without the cuts from the state, Damariscotta could keep its police department and not pass along a property tax increase.
Other towns have been forced to make similar choices. Just ask Waterville Mayor Karen Heck who had to shed 14 employees as a result of less state revenue coming to her city.
It all comes down to decisions made at the state level. Governor LePage and many legislative Republicans came into office with the promise of cutting taxes, creating more jobs, and getting our economy back on track. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened. While tax cuts have been made–for some–they’ve led to property tax increases for nearly everyone. When cost shifts are ignored by policymakers in Augusta, they are turning their backs on a hard reality faced daily by Maine people. It turns into a State vs. Town game of whack-a-mole.
Since they took over, we have lost more than 2,300 jobs and we still rank at the bottom of the list for personal income growth. Their solutions for fixing Maine’s economy are in fact leaving behind middle class families, and those trying hard to stay in the middle class.
We need economic policies that encourage and prioritize investments for the very things we know will work, like investing in education, R&D, our roads, bridges and high-speed Internet. We need to encourage job growth by making sure our workforce is trained and ready for the jobs of today and tomorrow. And we also need a realistic tax program considering state and local taxes, that is fair and makes sense.
It is time to pay attention to what’s behind the curtain. It’s time to be realistic, and rely on what our own hearts, brains, and bravery tell us, not trickle-down magic.
This is State Senator Chris Johnson of Somerville. Thank you for listening and have a great weekend.