A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
There has been nothing that business-oriented former Gov. Paul LePage has liked to talk about more than state spending.
During his tenure, a steadily improving national economy and tight spending — which included welfare cuts and avoiding filling open government positions — helped build the state’s cash pool to $1 billion for the first time in 2017. That record appeals to those who want to see the government run like a business but not to those who prioritize services most.
LePage is now running against Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on many of the big-picture ideas from his eight years in office in a year marked by record inflation and skyrocketing costs. Chief among them is a plan to phase out the income tax. After initially seeming wary of renewing her 2018 pledge to not raise taxes at a Bangor event on Tuesday, Mills’ campaign said she would not raise them if reelected this year.
For his part, LePage has not fully fleshed out his tax plan this time around. In the past, he has floated a broadened and increased sales tax to partially offset that, which his fellow Republicans did not rally behind in 2015. Even though she has not meaningfully changed LePage’s tax code, Republicans are trying to raise the specter of increases in the future, using Mills’ comments on Tuesday to do so.
“[Gov.] Mills’ campaign manager seems to be in charge of making state policy during the election year, but you can bet if Mills is reelected taxes will spike,” said Will Reinert, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association.
LePage’s fiscal hawkishness has continued into the 2022 election. LePage and fellow Republicans have hammered sharply increased spending under Mills, which has recently been underpinned by a wave of federal pandemic aid. It allowed a $1.2 billion spending package this year atop an $8.5 billion two-year budget.
Federal “funny money” that will run out has been the line from LePage in dismissing these plans, while Mills has spent much of this year making official trips across the state to roll out the spending programs that have recently been implemented to serve her economic agenda.
Whether you credit Mills or not for the budget picture (and it’s always a stretch to credit one politician for everything), there is one truth: Fiscal calamity from this spending has not yet ensued. The state’s rainy day fund, prized by LePage during his tenure, is now at a record of nearly $896 million after another huge surplus reported at the end of the budget year in June.
Good times never last forever for a state budget. But this election is in November. While LePage could win over many in an electorate hammered by high costs and economic uncertainty, the state budget is holding up well. As the challenger, that makes LePage’s fiscal road to the Blaine House a bit harder.