Budget battle lines, but not just yet

So, the governor proposed a budget. Surely you’ve heard by now.


Actually it isn’t surprising that you might not have. It was released last Friday, which is known by those in the political universe as “Friday trash day,” a nickname used to describe the habit of political leaders releasing information they don’t want the news to cover on Friday, because the media won’t cover it much and people are too busy with weekend plans to much care.

Still, political leaders in the Legislature typically jump all over the budget, so its release on a Friday afternoon shouldn’t really be a big deal, because surely the never shy political class of both parties will immediately begin spinning the budget, taking sides, and digging themselves into trenches to prepare for the coming war of attrition over the document, right?

No? What do you mean no one is really talking about it?

Amazingly, the whole world today seems quiet. Now, granted, I mean publicly quiet. In reality, for those inside the bubble of Maine politics, the governor’s budget is all anyone can talk about. I’ve fielded more calls, emails, and text messages in the past five days on the subject of the budget than I can ever remember getting about anything else. But in public? Nary a whisper, it seems.

Obviously I’m overexaggerating a bit, because there have been a number of public officials that have weighed in on the budget, but the reality is, for the most part, they all seem to be sitting and waiting. Like jungle animals stalking prey, they seem to be waiting for the other side to flinch before they pounce.

The tentativeness to take a firm stance on the budget is a testament to its boldness, if nothing else.

There are a huge number of items contained within it that should make a conservative’s heart flutter. Take for instance, a dramatic cut to the personal income tax, down to 5.75 percent. Or, take a substantial (and much needed) slashing of the corporate income tax. Or, the elimination of the estate tax, commonly referred to as the “death tax”. Or the nearly $300 million of net tax savings to the people of Maine. And of course, the cancellation of revenue sharing.

There are also a number of items that could make liberals smile. The sales tax going up to 6.5 percent. The removal of a number of exemptions in the sales tax. The addition of more brackets to the personal income tax, making it more “progressive.”

And then there are items that everyone is still trying to figure out, such as the so called “bubble-bracket,” and extending the ability of localities to tax non-profits on their property. Depending on your perspective, that could make logical sense — or be an ideological apostasy — to either party.

With this budget, Gov. LePage appears to have done the impossible: create a bold, transformative budget that fundamentally alters how everything in Maine is done, while simultaneously not getting obliterated by either his allies or his political rivals.

Indeed, I have spoken to liberals who are generally positive about the budget, and conservatives who don’t like it much. And I have spoken to conservatives who think it is the boldest, most refreshing budget in four decades, and liberals who think it is a non-starter. LePage is in new territory, not operating in the typical left-right paradigm.

In truth, there is no rush. The budget process will take a long time to play out, and silence today does not imply silence in the future. For example, neither I, nor the organization I represent — The Maine Heritage Policy Center — has taken a stand on the budget as of yet, nor will we until we conduct a full review of the more than 500-page budget, line by line, and evaluate its impact on everyday Mainers.

So, the Peace of Westphalia is not meant to last. There is little doubt that with a proposal this substantial and different, there will be a major fight over it at some point. Once the Legislature gets to work and puts its hands on it, there is little doubt that much of the budget will be reviewed and analyzed, and the pent up energy you see today will be released.

The fascinating question I have, though, is who will be fighting whom, and over what? That remains to be seen.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.