By Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, serves on the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. He represents East Millinocket, Medway, Millinocket, Patten and part of the unorganized territory of North Penobscot, including Herseytown and Long A Townships.
Maine deserves a budget that works for the entire state, whether we’re talking about our largest cities, our suburbs or our rural communities. But Gov. Paul LePage has instead proposed a budget that betrays rural Maine.
If the governor gets his way, rural areas would see harder times for young families trying to get established, schools squeezed tighter and tighter by shrinking budgets and diminished services that residents and small businesses rely on. This at a time when we ought to be making it easier for young Mainers to stay here to work and raise their families, when we ought to be doing all we can to help kids succeed and when we ought to be supporting our Main Street businesses.
All these things are important to communities across the state, but they’re especially important to rural Maine, where unemployment rates are the highest. My district is still reeling from the closure of Great Northern Paper and the loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs that supported workers, their families and the larger community.
We need a state budget that boosts rural Maine, but the governor has handed us a property tax hike instead.
The governor wants to eliminate revenue sharing, which for more than 40 years has helped local communities pay for important services like education, firefighting and snow plowing while keeping property taxes in check for residents and small businesses. These funds keep things running in local communities and provide relief to seniors on fixed incomes, working families and small businesses.
If the governor gets his way, the state would back out of its decades-long partnership with local communities across Maine. His budget attempts to make up for this drastic change by forcing certain nonprofit organizations to start paying property taxes.
It’s not clear if this would work for any community in Maine, but I can tell you for certain that it’s not going to work for rural Maine. It’s all still unclear, but on the face of it, it looks like the governor’s plan could favor big cities like Portland that have big nonprofits to tax.
Now look around rural Maine and tell me how many big museums, hospitals or private colleges you see that might be able to make up for the loss of these funds for communities. The Maine Municipal Association estimates that more than 400 of the state’s communities — about 90 percent — wouldn’t benefit from the governor’s plan.
In my community, Millinocket Regional Hospital would be hit hard. Already struggling, the governor’s plan threatens the hospital’s financial viability. It is now the largest employer in the area, with more than 250 jobs that support families and put money into our local economy. Without its services, patients would have to travel to Houlton or Bangor to receive care. This is a loss my community simply cannot afford.
As a member of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, I heard dozens of Mainers speak out against these parts of the governor’s budget plan recently. They came from all corners of the state and their message was loud and clear.
Judy East, the executive director of the Washington Council of Governments, got it right: “A policy choice at the state level to put more burden on the municipal property tax is unwise, unfair and, especially for rural Maine, indefensible.”
That’s what I was thinking as Calais Mayor Marianne Moore testified on the expected impact on the governor’s new nonprofit tax on Calais Methodist Homes: additional costs to the tenants, who are elderly, have disabilities and live on fixed incomes. It’s what I was thinking as Maine Association of Mental Health Services President Catherine Ryder talked about the likely loss of services for some of our most vulnerable citizens. I could go on and on.
What happens to these folks when they lose their services? Do they somehow manage without them? Do towns or the state have to step in and pick up the pieces when these organizations can’t keep at it? I don’t see a good answer to these questions anywhere in the governor’s budget, especially when I think of the impact on my rural community.
We need a budget that works for all of Maine. None of our communities should be left behind by a flawed and fundamentally unfair state budget. Maine is better than that.