Maine Democratic gubernatorial candidates Janet Mills (clockwise from left), Adam Cote, Donna Dion, Mark Eves, Diane Russell, Betsy Sweet and Mark Dion. Credit: BDN composite photo | BDN

In addition to electing a new governor and 186 legislators in November, Mainers will again vote on whether to raise the income tax rate on higher earners.

In 2016, voters approved a 3 percent surtax earmarked for public education, but Republicans in the Legislature thwarted its implementation as written. This year, the revenue from increasing the tax rate for income that proponents say would define earners as “wealthy” would pay to expand direct-care services for older and disabled Mainers.

A coalition led by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance has proposed the creation of a new Home Care Universal Trust Fund and collected enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. The initiative would claim a total of 3.8 percent of payroll taxes from income above $127,200 annually to fund daily in-home living services for people older than 65 and people with disabilities, regardless of their income. Proponents estimate the new taxes could generate $132 million per year.

With the focus on the current legislative session and the primary election in June, there has been little public debate about the proposal, which would fall to the next Legislature and governor to implement if voters endorse it. Given that overseeing a tax increase and implementing the program could become their responsibility, the Bangor Daily News surveyed the candidates for governor who have qualified for primary ballots about their thoughts on the measure.

All four Republicans running for the party’s nomination said they oppose the proposal. A summary of their responses will appear elsewhere.

Responses from Democrats appear below. Some wording has been edited for grammar and brevity.

Position on the referendum

The Maine People’s Alliance and other groups have spearheaded a citizen-initiated referendum to create a universal home health care system for all elderly and disabled Mainers, regardless of income. The program would be supported by a total of 3.8 percent payroll taxes for employers and employees on income above $127,200 annually. Do you support the initiative? Explain.

Betsy Sweet: “Yes, I support the initiative. Our health care system is simply not serving everyone adequately and our seniors in particular are hit the hardest. This initiative will provide much-needed care to those who have done so much for Maine and, as governor, I will work to make sure it is fully implemented when the people pass it.”

Janet Mills: “It’s critical that we ensure seniors and Maine people with disabilities have access to quality care and can stay in their homes. That’s why I support restoring our public health system, including undoing [Republican Gov. Paul] LePage’s devastating cuts to public health nursing, and have fought to expand Medicaid. I share the goals of this referendum, but I have yet to review the proposed statutory language.”

Donna Dion: “In reviewing the bill we have two sections to focus on. Section 5002: Imposition on employer, which seems to require an employer to tax employees who exceed the $127,200 threshold from Social Security. Now review section 5204-D: Additional tax on high earners’ non-wage income to support universal home care, which states 3.8 percent. Does this bill collect a total of company tax 1.9 percent and an additional 3.8 percent from a second level?”

Mark Eves: “Yes. As speaker of the House, giving Maine’s seniors the freedom to age where and how they wanted was one of my top priorities. That’s why I worked across the aisle to pass a $15 million senior housing bond that still languishes on the governor’s desk. This referendum is a good next step and would allow even more of Maine seniors to afford the care they need and age in place if they so choose.”

Adam Cote: “I support the intent of the home care initiative and believe it is an attempt to deal with a very important challenge. I am still in dialogue with supporters of the initiative about questions I have on its implementation and possible impacts on professional standards for home care as drafted. As far as funding, my preference is to pay for initiatives through the existing state budget, smart bonding, or by growing our existing progressive tax base by helping more people and businesses succeed and grow in Maine versus raising tax rates.”

Diane Russell: “Yes, we must find a rational way to pay for quality home health care for our elderly and disabled residents. Currently, they are some of the lowest-paid employees in the state which means lower quality of care for our most vulnerable.”

Mark Dion: “Yes. More and more Mainers are retiring from lifetimes of hard work only to find themselves alone and isolated in their homes without the kind of support and care that they need to sustain healthy lives. Without more resources, this shortage of services for seniors and the disabled will only get worse.”

Is it class warfare?

Opponents of higher tax rates for households with higher income call it class warfare. Why would or wouldn’t that be the case with this ballot question?

Mark Dion: “It’s not ‘class warfare’ to expect Maine’s wealthier residents to pay their fair share. Under LePage, taxes for the wealthy have been cut repeatedly. It’s time now to reconsider whether Maine’s tax system is doing its job — raising adequate revenues, and doing so as efficiently and fairly as possible.”

Betsy Sweet: “The class warfare that exists now is the attacks on the middle class. They are continually squeezed as we make our tax code more and more regressive through the LePage tax cuts for our wealthiest residents. Everyone should have to pay their fair share and that is why I support making our tax code more progressive.”

Janet Mills: “‘Class warfare’ and other terms like it are poll-tested turns of phrase generated by expensive consultants to polarize the debate and keep people fighting each other. To address the real issues facing Maine — ensuring our state has affordable health care, good jobs, clean air and water, and great schools — we need to bring people to the table and work together. That’s what I’ll do as governor.”

Donna Dion: “This is similar to the 7.65 percent taxes paid currently by employers for all levels of wages, and 15.3 percent from self-employed workers. If this is the concept, my interpretation is correct. The state of Maine is placing an increased tax to employers of 1.9 percent and having an additional amount collected from the employee earning over $127,200 another 1.9 percent for a total of 3.8 percent.”

Mark Eves: “LePage pushed a tax cut for the wealthy with every budget, including another one this year. That’s on top of the giveaway that the wealthy got from President Trump. It’s time our tax code — and our budget — started tilting more toward the needs of working families. This referendum is a step in the right direction.”

Adam Cote: “After seven-plus years under the ‘opponents’ economic leadership, Maine is lagging New England and the country when it comes to job, income, and economic growth. The question is why do all the Republicans running for governor profess to want to ‘stay the course’ on an approach that cut revenue sharing, underfunded the state contribution to local schools, and drove local property taxes up on Maine people, especially in rural areas? That is class warfare.”

Diane Russell: “It’s time the rich pay their fair share.”

Tax code changes

What changes, if any, would you propose to Maine’s tax code as governor?

Diane Russell: “I plan to close the offshore tax loophole which would bring in $10 million more per year, and channel that money toward closing the food insecurity gap and ending hunger by 2020. We would invest money in our local farms to ensure quality, nutritious food is available and deployed to families who need it — all while ensuring corporations currently hiding their money on offshore bank accounts will foot the bill.”

Mark Dion: “The LePage tax cuts, and the new tax cuts from Congress, mean that a greater burden is shifted to lower-income families, and, in Maine, to local governments. The state does need to raise more revenue, not only to help the elderly and disabled, but to fund basic programs like property tax relief through revenue sharing and school funding. I will consider all existing taxes, including sales, income and business taxes, in funding the services Mainers believe are essential.”

Betsy Sweet: “I would eliminate the numerous sales tax exemptions for businesses, especially those in tourism and entertainment, and would drastically cut the corporate welfare that is handed out with no accountability. I would also repeal the LePage tax cuts for the wealthiest and implement a 3 percent surcharge on our highest income earners that was enacted by the people to pay for education. I would also expand the circuit breaking program to provide property tax relief and the earned income tax credit.”

Janet Mills: “We need to address the simple fact that LePage’s much-touted tax cuts largely shifted the the burden onto local communities and property taxes, which are now driving seniors out of their homes. I support restoring revenue sharing, fully funding the state’s education obligations, and expanding the homestead exemption, all of which would lessen the burden on homeowners.”

Donna Dion: “More transparency of the tax impact and make the poverty level for one person $12,400 per year and that would be a benefit of $23.56 per year or 45 cents per week to have the benefit. We would have a more self-sufficient program if 100 percent participation instead of just the top 6 percent of wage earners. If we are developing cost-effective programs to keep individuals in their homes, they should equally share the burden.”

Mark Eves: “First we need to broaden the sales tax base. That’s something most Mainers can agree on. Then we need to make the wealthy pay their share through a more progressive income tax. Finally we need to restore revenue sharing so that local communities can provide targeted property tax relief where it’s affordable.”

Adam Cote: “Taxes and budgets are about your values. As governor and as a kid who grew up in a family of public school teachers and welders, my goal is to turn an economy that lags New England and the country on job, income, and economic growth into an economy that works for all Mainers in every part of our state. My plan is to fund key initiatives (clean energy, infrastructure, workforce skills) that will drive growth, grow state revenues, and then prioritize tax incentives and other policies that help women, families, small businesses, and working Mainers succeed.”

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.