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Maine Democrats renew attack on LePages over property tax break claimed in Florida

First lady Ann LePage, Gov. Paul LePage, and their son, Paul LePage, Jr., center, stand at attention during the National Anthem during the governor's inauguration ceremony, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
First lady Ann LePage, Gov. Paul LePage, and their son, Paul LePage, Jr., center, stand at attention during the National Anthem during the governor's inauguration ceremony, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

Maine Democrats on Monday continued to hammer former Republican Gov. Paul LePage because he and his wife Ann LePage are reportedly benefiting from a Florida tax break meant for full-time residents.

LePage's campaign is dismissing the attacks as a repurposed version of the one used against him in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

A New York Times report found that the LePages will save an estimated $8,500 in property taxes after claiming what's known as a homestead exemption in the state of Florida for one Ormond Beach home between 2009 to 2015, and later on for a separate home, from 2018 through the end of this year.

Tax records show that the couple continued to receive the recent tax exemption the final 10 months of the governor's second term in 2018.

That was before he declared residency and registered to vote in the Sunshine state on Jan. 2, 2019 — the same day his opponent this year, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, was inaugurated.

"Let me repeat that, while he was governor of Maine he was benefiting from a tax break that was only available to residents of Florida," Bev Uhlenhake, vice chair of the Maine Democratic Party, said during a press conference in Augusta on Monday.

Uhlenhake suggested that the tax exemption the LePages received, while legal, was unethical and hypocritical.

That's because LePage unsuccessfully tried to limit Maine's homestead tax exemption in 2017 to residents 65 and older, a restriction that would have removed the benefit for some 200,000 property owners.

And that, Uhlenhake says, was in addition to his successful cuts in a municipal revenue sharing program that's designed to reduce property taxes statewide.

"While he was cashing in on tax breaks down south he was also ratcheting up property taxes here in the state of Maine," she said. "There's no reason to think he wouldn't do it again. The hypocrisy is absolutely appalling."

"This is Groundhog Day all over again," said Brent Littlefield, an advisor to LePage.

Littlefield described the report as opposition research fed to the Times by Democrats and a rehash of a controversy that erupted during LePage's first gubernatorial bid in 2010.

He says now, as he did then, that the Florida properties in question are owned by Ann LePage, who was a Florida resident up until earlier this year and has since become a Maine resident again while her husband seeks a third, nonconsecutive term.

"The home is in her name. It always has been, the previous home and this home," Littlefield said. "Gov. LePage has been running for governor of Maine and Ann LePage has moved her residence to Maine this year as a way of signifying from her that she's willing and able to serve as the first lady of Maine. She wants to make that commitment."

In 2010, the LePages faced similar scrutiny when Ann LePage claimed a Maine homestead exemption on a home she owned in Waterville, as well as a Florida exemption for a home she owned in Ormond Beach.

That led Democrats to assert 12 years ago that the LePages were double-dipping in tax programs that require homeowners to certify that a residence is their primary one, a controversy leading to a testy exchange between candidate LePage and reporters.

"Can we have an answer to that question? Why would your wife need to establish residency in Florida?" a reporter asked at the time.

"This is what I'm going to say and I will not bring this up again. I am running for governor, not my wife," LePage replied.

Ann LePage was originally fined by Florida tax officials for claiming the exemption, but the penalty was later rescinded when she explained that the home was the primary residence of her ailing mother, thus triggering a provision in that state's tax code that allows homeowners to obtain a homestead exemption if a dependent lives in the same property.

Littlefield said the current situation is similar: Ann LePage owns the Florida home, not her husband.

"People may know that Ann has spent every single summer in Maine working as a waitress along the coast of Maine," he said. "She intended to be retired and kind of have that summers in Maine, Florida in the winter. And she's made the commitment that she's willing to serve as first lady again. The governor previously made that commitment when he moved to Maine with residency and announced he was going to run for governor."

It's unclear why Ann LePage didn't declare herself a Maine resident again in 2020 when her husband did.

The couple have rented a home in Edgecomb since that time, and the former governor declared his candidacy in 2021 after repeatedly teasing his intent to challenge Gov. Mills before he even left office, including on Maine Public's call-in show Maine Calling in Dec. 2018.

"It's the end of my political aspirations, but I will say this: If Janet Mills does what I think — at least listening for the last month of what they're saying they're going to do — I will be back in 2022 to fix the mess," he said.

LePage is now making a sweeping tax overhaul a key argument for his bid for another term.

Uhlenhake tweeted over the weekend that "someone cheating on taxes probably shouldn't be making decisions about a state's tax policies."

And on Monday, she said it doesn't matter that Ann LePage owns the Florida property because the couple benefited from the homestead exemption.

"He's running for governor for the state of Maine and he's taking property tax benefits in the state of Florida," she said. "I think it's pretty clear that the residents of the state of Maine probably feel slighted by this."

With a tight race forecast between LePage and Mills, Democrats certainly hope so.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.