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Maine State Majority Leader John Piotti in his State House Office. Photo by Ramona du Houx

An exclusive interview with Maine State Majority Leader John Piotti

By Ramona du Houx

 

July 5, 2009

At a time when many states are increasing taxes to balance budgets, Maine lawmakers cut the budget by $500 million and decreased the income tax rate. The state’s fiscal responsibility under the Baldacci administration opened the door for these historic measures, which will help move Maine out of the recession.

The majority leader in the House, Rep. John Piotti, working closely with the Governor’s Office, Democratic leadership, and Sen. Perry, played a key role to make tax reform and relief a reality.

“The governor was incredibly complementary of our work. Many of his concerns were the concerns, frankly, of all of us. Putting his provision in the bill, for the earned income tax recipients, makes this tax package more progressive,” said Piotti. “Working together, we developed a tax reform package about which we are all enthusiastic.”

Tax reform has been talked about for decades. Most citizens agree that the state needs to collect taxes to support programs they care about. Over 80 percent of taxes go to education and health and human services.

“Most impartial observers for the last 30 years have said that Maine’s tax system is fundamentally out of whack. Despite repeated efforts, there has never been success in making a change,” said Piotti. “We felt it was past time when we need to make fundamental change on how we collect revenues. In fact, it’s critical to do it now. Businesses are on the edge; people are living in dire straits. This reform package sets the state up for a better recovery. By positioning ourselves with a lower income tax rate and a slightly broader sales income tax base, we are going to be more competitive compared to other states. Now we are poised for the future.”

Two years ago he began working on this issue, but revising the tax code wasn’t something Rep. Piotti set out to do when he became a lawmaker. He holds three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in engineering, public policy, and management. He worked 11 years in economic development at Costal Enterprises and is now the executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust.

Former Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings identified Rep. Piotti as a negotiator who could bring people of opposite persuasions together, so he appointed Piotti to become chair of the Taxation Committee. Cummings had witnessed what he had accomplished on the state’s Katahdin Lake acquisition.

“The Katahdin Lake project was very intense. I was chairing the Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Committee at that time. Most pundits would probably say it was dead-on-arrival at the committee. They thought it was impossible to bring the two sides together on this issue. When it became law, that was my proudest moment in the Legislature. We worked that bill incredibly hard. We had about a hundred hours on it,” said the majority leader.

“Often with policy issues, people line up on different sides and fight. But if you can take it to a different level and begin to understand why they are lining up on the sides, you can find common ground. We kept working that bill until we found that common ground. We found out what the underlying problems were, and ultimately made it work. It was complicated. Local people had major concerns about not having access to the forest that they cared about. As part of the process to ensure that access, we had local people work with the Department of Conservation to think about a comprehensive plan for both recreational and conservation use.”

When Piotti was first tasked with tax reform, he took the same approach.

“We rolled up our sleeves. We had 43 work sessions on tax reform two years ago; that’s about 250 hours, which was unprecedented. We felt we needed to take extra time to really learn about the issue. First, we educated ourselves, so that we understood how our tax code works. Then we created ten underlying principles to keep us from getting off track by being trapped in an ideological dead end,” said Piotti. “Ultimately, eleven members of the committee supported the plan. Only one Republican and one Democrat didn’t. It was a starting place based on facts and information.”

For some, the tax reform bill two years ago didn’t take everybody’s concerns into account. There were small-business owners who voiced worries that their businesses would suffer. And in the end, the bill failed in the Senate.

This time around, Rep. Piotti, the Governor’s Office, Sen. Perry and Democratic Leadership worked hard to address all concerns.

“We talked to a lot of people inside and outside of this building on what to do. We had about a dozen meetings with business leaders and Chambers of Commerce. We’ve reached out to the general public with at least a dozen meetings,” said Piotti.

“Tax reform is all about the manner in which we collect money that keeps services running. More of our revenues will come from non-residents and visitors to the state. That means Mainers will see a reduction in their tax burden. When all is said and done, this is a fairer tax system, with more money in your pocket, even if you have to pay some additional sales taxes in some areas. The reductions will be greater than that.”

The plan reduces the top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent for everyone earning less than $250,000 per year. The sales tax would be expanded to some consumer services such as movie tickets, car repairs, dry cleaning, and pet boarding. The law also calls for the meals-and-lodging tax to be increased from 7 percent to 8.5 percent, and the tax on short-term car rentals to be increased.

Piotti said that by changing the tax code, state revenues will become more stable.

“First and foremost, we now have a smarter code. The new code has better incentives and disincentives. It rewards people who live and work here. It is a code which will spur economic development, as well as being a code that will provide more stable state revenues. That is so critical,” said the majority leader. “We had a panel of four economists testify at the hearing, who were very supportive. Every one of them talked about the importance of stabilizing state revenues. When we have a dramatic dip in the economy like we are experiencing, a more stable revenue base would help.”

Rep. Piotti’s working experience shows he knows how to turn businesses around to stabilize them. His dedication to helping working farms in Maine is a prime example.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about agriculture in Maine; in the last ten years we’ve gained over 1,000 farms in the state. There is more land under production, about 90,000 acres more. Some farms are struggling, but farming is not dying.”

Some of agriculture’s growth can be directly attributed to the work Rep. Piotti accomplished when he worked for CEI, helping 600 working farms become viable.

“CEI used to have a range of agricultural programs in the 70s and 80s, but they backed away from it like everyone else in the 90s. In 1995, I asked CEI’s president , Ron Philips: If I could raise the money, would he be interested in returning to agriculture? He agreed, and I got grants. Before we knew it, we had a million-dollar-a-year program,” said Piotti. “For 11 years at CEI, I helped farms with business planning and market development. In 1995 it was a whole different world. The biggest challenge for Maine farmers at that time was finding new markets. Now people are interested in buying local food. Take apple farms; 25 years ago they were mostly wholesale operations. Now they are more diversified. Many now grow a variety of products. Some have tours, weddings, hay rides, cross-country skiing. They have their own value-added products like cider, donuts, and pies. That’s all part of the transition farms went through in the last ten to twelve years. They have made a more direct link with the customer, instead of dealing with a middleman. Value-added products have really helped Maine’s farms.”

Piotti’s first attempt to create tax reform, along with his work in Agriculture, gave him valuable experiences.

“Having grown up in a small community, I was interested in economic development at the community level. Back in the early 1990s I was co-chairing the Comprehensive Planning Committee in my town of Unity with a dairy farmer. He said, ‘You know, John, you’re doing all these things to promote appropriate scale economic development in rural areas, but you know nothing about farming.’ He was right. I had worked on forest products issues, aquaculture issues, small manufacturing issues, and lots of other things, but I’d never done anything on farming. He became my mentor,” said Piotti.

Now John runs Maine Farmland Trust, which works with landowners, land trusts, farmland preservation groups, and municipalities to identify and preserve valuable agricultural land, and to keep farming viable.

“There are different reasons farms are having troubles, and we help in different ways. For instance, we help some farmers find a way to increase their income, so they can  buy down their debt,” said Piotti. “The biggest barrier is farmland that is unaffordable for people who want to start farming or for existing farmers who want to secure land they now use but do not own. Dairy farmers are a great example of that. Dairy farmers utilize about 700,000 acres of land in the state. Probably 150,000 of that is leased land, sometimes with only a handshake agreement. The land is critical to their success, but they have no control over it. Often they are elderly landowners, who, when they die the land is sold, without the dairy farmers even being notified,” said the majority leader.

“We help both existing farmers and young farmers who want to get started. Permanently preserving land makes it more affordable by removing its value for development. We work to keep farms viable.”

Now Maine’s tax system is more viable.