In addition to running a public policy think tank and writing this column every week, I have also been blessed for the last three years to host the morning drive time radio program on WGAN, southern Maine’s biggest news and talk radio station.
A couple weeks ago, we decided to host a conversation with lawmakers who were working on Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed budget in Augusta. On the Republican side we had Sen. Jim Hamper, and on the Democratic side we had Sen. Cathy Breen, both of whom sit on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
The budget will be consuming both of their lives for the next several weeks and months, and Breen happens to represent the Senate district that I live in, so I thought it was a great idea to have them on the program.
Well, when Breen joined the program, I will admit that it didn’t quite go so smoothly.
It began simply and harmlessly enough. She gave a standard politician’s answer to the question about the status of the budget and what the Democratic priorities were going to be. Even though I heard about 30 statements I disagreed with, I rarely argue with a guest on the show, so I let them pass unchallenged.
However, after allowing her to finish, I did feel it was kind of my duty to ask a question that came from a perspective that differed from hers. And as it relates to the budget, my biggest criticism of it is that it blows a major opportunity that Maine has to significantly reform our tax system to make ourselves competitive with our neighbors. An opportunity that isn’t likely to come again for a long time.
“Is there any impulse,” I began, “from either yourself or legislative leaders to actually try to get taxes in Maine down and make us more competitive compared to our neighbors?”
It was a fairly simple question, and I worded it carefully to not sound accusatory, and not bring any partisanship unnecessarily into the conversation. It was the issue that I cared about talking about more than anything.
To her credit, Breen gave a perfectly acceptable answer to the question. It is one that I disagreed with and betrayed a perspective on spending and taxes that I find frustratingly misplaced, but there was nothing inherently offensive to me about what she said.
However, I decided to try to ask a follow up question to explain why I thought the issue was important, hoping to get her to address that underlying reason to spark a more interesting conversation.
I made note of the fact that our regional economic competitors (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, etc.) have significantly lower income taxes than us, or no income tax at all, yet can easily fund their governments. I also noted that the state that is perhaps most threatening to us given the winter migration that beckons so many of our citizens — Florida — also has no personal income tax, and similarly can fund its government.
Could we truly not, I asked, think about reforming how we collect taxes to make ourselves competitive economically?
And that’s when she said it. “Honestly, Matt, if you really prefer Massachusetts, then you can live in Massachusetts.”
A remarkable thing to say to somebody you represent in Augusta, I thought. But setting aside the fact that she told me I could leave the state if I didn’t like her approach to the budget, I thought the logic of her statement more or less proved my point.
People are choosing to live in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida. People who otherwise would like to have lived in Maine. People who used to live in Maine. People who never came, but should have.
Talk to any financial advisor. They’ve done the math. It doesn’t make financial sense to live here when you have other options that pay you more and tax you less, both regionally and nationally.
Maine lawmakers can either continue to make it unfeasible to move here while chasing people away, or they can seek to make Maine a destination for economic growth. Lowering taxes isn’t the only policy change that is necessary to create a culture of growth here, but there’s no denying that is it a critical component.
Sadly, until our leaders come to grips with that simple truth, Maine will never reverse the terrifying demographic decline we have seen. We’re getting older, more of us die than are born, our kids continue to leave, and we aren’t getting any richer.
All of that begins with public policy. But instead of taking that seriously, lawmakers would prefer to tell their constituents that they should live somewhere else instead.