Maine Voters Say: Please Hike My Taxes!

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Earlier this week, Maine voters approved a ballot measure that repeals an ambitious tax reform enacted in 2009 by the state legislature. The legislature’s plan would have reduced the state’s reliance on income taxes and increased its reliance on sales taxes in a way that was carefully calibrated to leave total tax collections unchanged (while cutting taxes on Maine residents and hiking taxes on tourists).

This tax reform plan had been placed on hold after a signature gathering campaign gave voters the opportunity to ratify or reject the legislature’s actions. Voters this week rejected the plan by a 61-39 margin—but don’t seem to have been aware that they were essentially voting to hike their own taxes by more than $50 million a year.

If it seems odd that Maine lawmakers would pass a revenue-neutral tax reform at a time of such budgetary turmoil, this is because the legislation’s sponsors had longer-term reform goals in mind. As in many other states, both the sales tax and income tax were riddled with loopholes that forced tax rates higher than they would otherwise need to be.  

The legislature’s reforms would have broadened the income tax base by repealing all itemized deductions, and broadened the sales tax base by eliminating exemptions for services from car repairs to laundromats to movie tickets. The tax increases from these base expansions were to be offset by reductions in the top income tax rate from 8.5 to 6.85 percent and the creation of a new refundable “household credit” designed to ensure that most Mainers would see net income tax cuts under the plan; state revenue officials estimated that 95 percent of Maine residents would have seen income tax cuts under this plan, and that 87 percent of residents would have seen net tax cuts even after the sales tax increases.

The plan was also motivated by a perception that tourists and part-year residents weren’t paying their fair share of the cost of funding public services. The plan would have increased the sales tax rate on certain items consumed primarily by non-residents, such as lodging and rental cars. This is the main reason why this revenue-neutral plan would have cut taxes on Maine residents by $50 million while increasing taxes on non-residents by a similar amount.

The good news for lawmakers is that because the plan was designed to be revenue-neutral, its rejection by voters won’t affect the state’s budget in the short run. But it’s likely that this failure will make budgeting more difficult for policymakers in the long run. Broadening tax bases by eliminating tax breaks makes a state’s revenue stream less volatile over time: a shortfall in consumer spending in one area can be offset by continued growth in another, and the result is a smoother, more predictable revenue stream.

From that perspective, this bill was a recipe for a more sustainable tax system. Unfortunately, many Mainers simply thought this was a referendum on whether the sales tax should apply to their movie tickets.

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