AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican legislative leaders say they will push a constitutional amendment in the new session that would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass any tax increase. But whether it will be sent to the voters for their approval depends on getting some Democrats to agree to the proposal, which has not been formalized.
“A lot depends on the details,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco. “I think everything has to be on the table and I am willing to at least go through the discussions and the intellectual discussion of that proposal.”
He said he does not believe that Democrats will propose any tax increases in the new session. He said the amendment proposal is not new and has not garnered the votes in the past to be sent to the voters.
“Amending the constitution is a serious thing to do and should be thoroughly discussed and debated,” Hobbins said.
Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, had proposed changing the rules of the Legislature to require a two-thirds vote for tax increases, but abandoned that initiative after GOP leaders were told that approach could face a serious constitutional challenge.
“We have discussed an amendment and I would support that,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, said he would have supported a rules change but was convinced that the only proper way to require a two-thirds vote would be by amending the state constitution.
“We are working on that,” he said. “It appears to me that we will have to get an amendment approved by the voters to get that two-thirds provision.”
Courtney believes there will be broad support to put the “supermajority” amendment into the constitution. He said a two-thirds vote would indicate that an increase is “truly needed” and he believes voters want that sort of requirement to prevent further tax increases.
“You won’t have to worry about that while we are in the majority,” he said, “but we have to look to the future.”
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he plans to co-sponsor Courtney’s legislation. He said such a proposal is part of the GOP promise of “responsible government” and agreed it should garner broad support.
“A lot of candidates on both sides of the aisle ran for office on the platform of being fiscally responsible and encouraging job growth and retention in Maine,” he said. “I think that the notion of requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes is in keeping with that platform.”
Raye said he has not seen a draft of the proposal so he does not know all of the details. He said he would be willing to consider language limiting the two-thirds requirement to “major taxes” to get the votes needed to pass the measure.
“To me a fee is just another name for a tax,” he said. “But if there was a group that came to us and argued they wanted the user fee they pay to go up to pay for a service that they want, that is different and we should discuss that.”
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said amending the state constitution is a serious matter and that even when lawmakers agree, the voters may not.
She pointed to a change pushed by town clerks recently as an example in which lawmakers proposed a change but the voters rejected it.
“I have tried to do it myself,” she said, “I tried to lower the age of eligibility to run for the House. It failed.”
Cain said constitutional amendments are one of the few areas of legislation in which Republicans will need Democratic support to pass their proposals. Bond issues and emergency legislation are the others that need bipartisan support.
“It will be a serious conversation, and my guess is it will be about a bigger picture of does this make us more responsible or make us less flexible,” she said.
Lawmakers must submit drafting requests for legislation by Jan. 7, but it may be weeks before the proposal is printed and scheduled for a public hearing.