Maine Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, is pictured in the Senate chamber on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans in the Maine Senate want to send state surpluses back to taxpayers, walking a political tightrope going into an election year marked by historic federal aid and after long hitting Gov. Janet Mills for overspending.

The “Give It Back” plan promises to be a major part of the minority party’s messaging push entering the 2022 legislative session and as the race kicks off in earnest between the Democratic governor and former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who has dusted off his old goal of eliminating the income tax if he wins an unprecedented Blaine House return bid.

Republicans’ main argument is that roughly $1 billion in federal aid that bailed states out during the COVID-19 pandemic was over and above what was needed to fund the government. But it is also an acknowledgement that the intervention has led to tax revenues remaining healthy in Maine despite higher spending levels under Democratic leadership of Augusta.

The proposal from Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, would give taxpayers a slice of unused revenue collected monthly. It draws upon instances like in August, when the state saw $42.4 million — or 12 percent — more revenue than it expected. Half of the money would go to Maine’s rainy day fund and half to another fund to cut checks to Mainers. The amounts would fluctuate depending on revenues and budgetary needs.

“I’d like to give it to everyone,” Timberlake said of the program.

These sorts of programs are not new in Augusta. When she ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins last year, former House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, cited a similar property tax relief program that she championed. That was a repurposing of a fund established under LePage in 2012 that aimed to offset income taxes. Republicans also secured $300 relief payments to certain workers in a state budget passed this summer.

That was a $8.5 billion pact that boosted the state’s share of public K-12 education to the long-unmet threshold of 55 percent of essential costs and boosted local aid that LePage once proposed zeroing out. Almost all Republicans voted for that budget, but they viewed a roughly $500 million spending increase as an overexpansion of government.

Senate Republicans are now united behind the give-back idea. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot of Augusta, who was one of the few Republicans to oppose the last budget, said it will be a key policy focus for Senate Republicans that will come into play next November.

“Voters are going to have to choose if they want legislators that believe tax dollars belong to them or those that believe they belong to the government and growing government,” he said.

The idea must get through the Legislative Council, a 10-member panel of top lawmakers controlled by Democrats, before being heard in 2022. Neither Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, nor budget committee co-chair Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, had seen the Republican proposal by Friday, a spokesperson said. Scott Ogden, a spokesperson for Mills, said she had not either, but he called it a tacit acknowledgement of the state’s good fiscal situation under her leadership.

LePage spokesperson Brent Littlefield said the former governor supports returning money to residents if possible and bolstering reserves. But he dismissed the idea that a good financial situation could harm LePage’s position, saying aid is masking a weak financial standing. Rising inflation could also affect people’s economic views, he said.

“I don’t know that everybody in the state is feeling like things are better off now than they’ve been in the past,” he said.

Mills took office amid a strong economy that allowed for a budget nearly $2 billion higher than the first one inked under LePage in 2011. While Maine and other states faced doomsday budget projections when the COVID-19 pandemic set in last year, an initial wave of federal aid propped states up. Then, Maine got $1 billion in aid plus more for cities, counties and towns in the Democratic stimulus bill passed earlier this year.

Lawmakers should resist returning money, said Sarah Austin, a budget policy analyst for the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy, adding that the recovery from the pandemic is slowing and unpredictable with the virus still circulating widely. Any leftover money would be better used paying for programs to support lower-income people or in the rainy day fund, she said.

“Prioritizing what would likely be small checks to all households would do little to substantially change the systemic problems facing Maine families who are struggling most,” Austin said.