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While governor, LePage cut state revenue sharing with towns. Maine Dems warn it could happen again

Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this May 5, 2018, file photo Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Republican Convention, in Augusta, Maine.

Inflation, energy prices, and women's healthcare are among the top issues in Maine's gubernatorial race. But Democrats are highlighting municipal budgets as another important concern. While previously serving as governor, Republican Paul LePage made cuts to a state program that shares revenue with towns and cities. It's a policy that Democrats say forced municipalities to reduce services and raise property taxes — and they warn it could happen again if LePage is elected.

The state of Maine has shared a portion of its revenue with towns and cities for five decades. And Bev Uhlenhake, vice chair of the Maine Democratic party and former mayor of Brewer, says that funding is critical to pay for essential services, including police, fire, first responders, and schools.

"And because those services, if not funded by municipal revenue sharing, would be funded by property taxes, the revenue sharing also provides property tax relief across the state of Maine," Uhlenhake says.

dem mayors.jpg
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Current Lewiston mayor Carl Sheline, former Brewer mayor Bev Uhlenhake, former Gardiner mayor Thom Harnett speak about municipal budgets as part of this year's governor's race.

But while she was mayor of Brewer, she says she had to increase property taxes because then-Governor Paul LePage reduced the state's revenue sharing to 2%. Democratic Rep. Thom Harnett, and former mayor of Gardiner, says it was a 60% reduction, which hit his small city hard.

"So what did that mean for Gardiner, a small city of about 5900 people? In the six years that I was mayor, Paul LePage took away $3.2 million in revenue sharing," Harnett says. Three point two million dollars over a six year period."

"We referred to them as raids," says Kate Dufour, a spokesperson for the Maine Municipal Association.

Dufour says LePage's cuts to revenue sharing left communities with three choices: limit services, increase property taxes, or do a combination of the two. Most, she says did a combination.

"And you saw some programs where they were eviscerated," she says. "People were laid off. We weren't providing as many services to our communities, or they were limited in nature. Ya know, libraries weren't open five days or six days a week. We rolled back on our law enforcement officers."

Governor Janet Mills has restored revenue sharing to the full five percent, as required by state law. It's a move that LePage criticized in an interview in August on Portland radio station WGAN.

"Revenue - she's saying or talking about revenue sharing at five percent," LePage said. "Well, why don't we right-size our schools and right-size our governments? And then we could literally lower property taxes and they wouldn't need revenue sharing."

LePage campaign spokesperson Brent Littlefield dismisses the concerns raised by the Democratic former mayors, saying LePage has a track record of lowering taxes without cutting services when he was mayor of Waterville.

"That is called real fiscal responsibility," Littlefield says. "And I guess that is something that none of these Mayors have learned."

As for whether Republican municipal leaders favor cuts to revenue sharing, Auburn mayor Jason Levesque says rather than weighing in on a specific policy, he'd like to see a holistic review of state funding.

"It would be a comprehensive reform of the entire way our government works, or the interaction between the state and local level," Levesque says.

Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association says the state and municipalities had a strong partnership prior to LePage's revenue sharing cuts. It's a relationship, she says, that's only recently been rebuilt.