February Vacation Results in Relatively Quiet Week in Augusta, Except the Tax Package 

This week, Maine schools were out on vacation and the Legislature followed suit.  The House and Senate did not hold session this week and most legislative committees did not meet.  The notable exception to the quiet week, other than the high school basketball tournament at the Civic Center, was the Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Taxation Committees joint hearings on the tax portions of the Governor’s proposed biennial budget. 

These Committees met jointly on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to receive public testimony on various components of the tax reform plan included in the budget.  This included a review of the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax, reduce the personal and corporate income tax rates, eliminate municipal revenue sharing, transition certain business equipment from the property tax reimbursement program to the property tax exemption program, and other property tax-related proposals (including limited taxation of nonprofits).  Hearings on the tax package will continue next week, when the Committees will receive testimony related to expanding the base and increasing rates of the sales and use tax.   

The Committees heard from a number of Mainers regarding the proposed tax package.  While there are certainly opponents to specific provisions of the tax package, support for the overall direction of the package is emerging.  This week, economist and former Independent State Senator Dick Woodbury authored an opinion piece that called this tax package “a real opportunity for bipartisan collaboration.”  Woodbury is joined by the conservative, Americans for Tax Reform, which endorsed this package last week.

Committees in Full Swing Next Week 

Next week, barring more snowstorm cancellations, committees begin their work in earnest with a full suite of public hearings and work sessions on bills.  Up until this point in the session, most committees have been occupied with preliminary matters or have held hearings on only a handful of bills.  Roughly 450 bills have been printed and referred to committee and the pace of committee work is going to greatly accelerate.  In a few weeks, as these bills move out of committee, the House and Senate will begin processing them, but until that time, these chambers will mostly be focused on referring bills to committees. 

Clean Elections Ballot Question Expected on November Ballot 

This week, Secretary of State Dunlap found that Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has submitted a sufficient number of valid signatures to have their Clean Elections legislation proposed to the Legislature.  Pursuant to Maine’s constitution, this ballot question will be placed on the November 2015 state-wide ballot, unless the Legislature enacts this proposal without change this session.  Responding to flagging participation in the Clean Elections system by legislators, particularly those in competitive races, and a lack of interest in the system by gubernatorial candidates, this group is hoping to inject new life into this public financing system. 

This proposal actually touches on a number of campaign finance law issues outside of the Clean Elections system by establishing new disclosure requirements and enhancing penalties for certain campaign finance violations.  At its core, however, the proposal seeks to make the Clean Elections system more attractive to candidates.  For example, the proposal would make it easier for gubernatorial candidates to qualify for the system.  Additionally, it would seek to replace matching funds provisions in the system after matching funds were declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.  Moreover, this ballot question would provide substantially more funding to candidates opting into this taxpayer financed system – up to $3 million for gubernatorial candidates; up to $70,000 for State Senate candidates; and up to $17,500 for State House candidates.  This increased funding would be offset by eliminating $6 million in tax incentives for Maine businesses.