Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Garrett Martin is the president and CEO of the Maine Center for Economic Policy

Maine lawmakers have an opportunity to transform the state’s economy by choosing to invest in our people and communities. Imagine an economy where workers don’t have to choose between caring for a loved one and keeping their jobs, where businesses can count on having access to skilled workers who aren’t saddled with debt or distracted by the challenge of securing stable housing or child care. Imagine communities where supports are in place to help people struggling with substance use disorder and everyone can get the care they need.

This reality is within reach, and it starts with the state budget.

State budgets can change lives. Doing so requires resources prudently invested in ways that create pathways to success and lift up people who have been left behind. The revenue we raise through taxes allows us to meet obligations, solve problems, respond to crises and promote a society where everyone, regardless of race or place, can thrive. That’s what Maine lawmakers should strive to accomplish as they craft the next two-year budget.  

Unfortunately, rather than aspire to be the best version of Maine we can be, some lawmakers would prefer to cling to old ways of thinking. Instead of seeking methods to make life better for workers and small businesses through investments in Maine people and communities, their solution is to cut taxes.

Cutting taxes is a failed prescription for three reasons. First, it ignores the fact that workers, businesses and communities continue to face significant challenges that additional public investment could help address. Second, tax cuts, especially income tax cuts, seldom benefit the people who most need the additional income boost and instead tend to deliver a windfall to wealthier households and businesses at great expense to everyone else. Finally, they compromise our ability to meet future needs and make it harder to respond during times of crisis.

Mainers don’t need to look back very far to see the impact of blunt force tax cuts. Tax cuts passed during the LePage administration failed to produce the economic boost promised. They disproportionately benefited the top 20 percent of taxpayers, gutted vital services like education and public health, increased food insecurity, and resulted in a painfully slow recovery from the Great Recession that was among the worst in the nation. Had LePage gotten his way and eliminated the state’s income tax, the result would have been a $2.3 billion reduction in revenue today. Filling a budget hole that large would mean significantly raising other taxes like sales and property taxes that working people would be more likely to pay or making major cuts to education, health care and other supports that provide the things we need to build a strong economy.

There are choices lawmakers can make this year to promote tax fairness and shore up revenue to provide Maine people and communities with tools and opportunities in the future. When large corporations exploit the state tax code to avoid paying taxes, the rest of us are left to pick up the tab. Lawmakers can stop it. They can also reign in expensive tax giveaway programs that cost the state millions without helping the people who need it most.

By seizing this moment, lawmakers can ensure future high school graduates have access to two years of college or technical education at no cost; that no K-12 student must try to learn on an empty stomach; that quality, affordable housing, health care and long-term care are available and accessible; and that workers don’t have to choose between their jobs and caring for loved ones.

We have the resources available to change lives and create thriving communities, and when we choose to fund improvements to health and economic wellbeing, the entire state prospers.