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Politics

LePage Vows to Push Ballot Measure to Eliminate Income Tax

AUBURN, Maine - Gov. Paul LePage says he'll push a statewide ballot measure in 2016, asking voters to amend the Maine Constitution to eliminate the state income tax. LePage made the announcement in Auburn at the third in a series of town hall meetings on his ambitious tax reform plans.

The events let citizens show up and speak with the governor, one on one, about how his proposals might impact their bottom lines. LePage encountered a mixture of support and skepticism at last night's session.

When presidents and governors want sell a controversial policy change, town hall meetings are often the go-to strategy. These gatherings usually have a few things in common:  They're highly scripted and slickly produced. There's a captive audience. And there's the politician at the center of it all, smooth, polished, microphone in hand or affixed to the suit lapel, moving easily around the room, sometimes speaking in generalities.

Gov. Paul LePage's tax forum in Auburn was nothing like this. It all began at a little after 6, when LePage walked onstage at Edward Little High School and sat down at a table. "Good evening all. What I want to talk to you about tonight is our current budget proposal to the Legislature and tell you why we are doing this."

Part of the governor's appeal, to his supporters, is his no nonsense, general manager-esque approach to governing and politics. And he opened last night's forum with a typically blunt take on what's holding Maine back. Our people are too old, he said. Energy costs are too high. And so are taxes.

"My goal is to pass a constitutional amendment, in 2016, which will require the state to eliminate the income tax forever," he said.

In the near term, LePage is trying to persuade Mainers - and, by extension, the lawmakers who represent them - to back changes that will begin moving the state in this direction. The governor's two-year budget drops the income tax rate from 7.95 percent to 5.75 percent. Corporate income taxes would drop from 8.93 percent to 6.75 percent and the sales tax would go up - from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent.

The budget would also end state revenue sharing with municipalities, and instead, impose a property tax on non-profits that have more than $500,000 in property. This proposed change worried some in the crowd, including Bernice Frazier.

"Many people are worried about property taxes on churches," she said.

"Very good question," the governor responded. "Number one is, I don't tax churches and would never tax a church, 'cause the almighty is going to get me."

Some, in the crowd though, were not in a joking mood on the subject of a possible end to revenue sharing. Jim Lysen, an active member of the Maine People's Alliance, got up from his seat and stepped into the aisle to address the governor. Lysen is the former city planner in Lewiston.

"Why does it make sense to further exacerbate local municipalities with this tax shift to, really, the taxpayers themselves and some regressive taxes, at a time when income inequality is the worst it's been in the history of the planet?" he asked. "So that's my question. Why now?"

"Why now, because frankly it never should have been here," LePage replied. "Bringing in the income tax was the start of the downslide of the state of Maine."

The hour-long session went by quickly. When it was over, the governor lingered for a few minutes shaking hands, before heading back to Augusta.

"I really think the governor is terrific. He's a people person," said former Republican state Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, who says a cut to the income tax rate would help her deal with a costly medical problem. Snowe-Mello's husband has dementia.

"I have a husband that's at Clover Health Care. And I pay, out of pocket, $6,000-$,7000, and I am drawing down on my investments," she says. "And, very soon, I'm going to have to apply for MaineCare.

Taxes are tough, Snowe-Mello added. We need to educate people. As she prepared to head out, Snowe-Mello had a stack of booklets, spelling out the governor's tax proposals, tucked under one arm.