Politics at play
In announcing his veto of LD 205, a bill that would have exempted nonprofit performing arts centers from having to pay says tax, Gov. Paul LePage attempted to portray himself as a fiscal watchdog and principled guardian of state sales tax exemptions.
“Performing-arts organizations are important to the cultural fabric of Maine,” LePage wrote in his veto message. “However, simply because something is worthwhile and good does not mean it should enjoy tax free status. Exemptions from the sales tax should be saved for the necessities of life — food, shelter, medicine — as well as for important initiatives meant to foster growth and create good paying jobs in Maine industries, increasing our overall tax base.”
A review of bills that LePage signed during his first year in office reveals the governor’s statement to be, at best, inconsistent or — more likely — a mask to disguise a petty partisan political smackdown of an influential Democratic senator (Stan Gerzofsky) during the first days of the legislative session and an election year.
At the same time he spiked Gerzofsky’s bill, the governor nixed legislation sponsored by two other Democratic senators, Phil Bartlett of Gorham and Troy Jackson of Allagash. The timing and partisan grouping casts these vetoes as purely political acts designed to undermine good constituent service by opposition party legislators.
LePage enthusiastically supported and signed LD 946, which strips away sales, storage and use taxes on aircraft purchased outside Maine by a nonresident. LD 946 makes sense and corrected an unfairness in Maine law, but so did LD 205 — and the fiscal notes attached to both bills show that LD 205 would have exacted a far less significant impact on state revenues than LD 946.
A straight- up comparison can’t help but lead one to believe that Le- Page favors non-residents who can afford private planes over the Maine State Music Theatre, which has employed local people and enhanced the Mid-coast region’s economic and cultural climate since 1959, and the Bowdoin International Music Festival, which has generated similarly positive local impacts since 1964.
The governor also endorsed legislation that exempts recycling centers from sales tax on plastic bags, certain uses of recreational watercraft and aircraft parts. None of these seem to fit his “food, shelter or medicine” definition. The aircraft materials exemption holds potential to create jobs, but Brunswick’s two local performing arts centers have a track record — not potential — of employing Maine people and buying Maine produces for 52 years and 47 years, respectively.
LD 205 passed the Senate by a 28-5 vote and gained broad bipartisan support in the House. It would have placed nonprofit performing arts centers, including the Bowdoin International Music Festival and the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, on equal footing with museums, summer camps and many other cultural organizations that don’t pay sales tax on materials and services such as lodging.
In addition to showcasing another instance in which LePage placed politics before people, the LD 205 veto also highlights the need for a complete overhaul of the state’s entire list of sales tax exemptions, which reads more like a list of lobbyists’ successes or trophies for those who have friends in high places than a fair and honest attempt to shield essential items from sales tax.