Budget negotiations in Augusta deteriorated further on Tuesday with the top Senate Democrat making a series of claims during a morning radio interview that the top Senate Republican says just aren’t true.
Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) on WVOM’s George Hale and Ric Tyler radio show accused Republicans of pursuing a tax cut that would allow people making more than $1 million to save $10,000 on their state income taxes. Jackson also said the Republican proposal would have only provided $70 in relief to low-income workers.
But at a press conference later in the day, Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) strongly rebuked Jackson’s characterization of the kind of tax reform Republicans had proposed.
“Nobody was ever talking about that except for Troy who was trying to put those words in our mouth. Which is a flat out lie,” he said. “It’s a flat out lie.”
The facts appear to be on Stewart’s side.
Nothing in the proposal Republicans shared with reporters Friday would have benefited high earners or poorer workers in the way Jackson described.
In reality, the proposal would have amounted to roughly $300 in savings for all income earners.
Jackson did not respond to an inquiry asking him what he was basing his claims on during the radio interview.
Jackson also misconstrued the budget negotiations when it comes to funding the tax rate reductions, which would have reduced the state income tax rate from 5.8 percent to 4.5 percent on the first $23,000 of earned income.
“We asked them all along what they want to cut out of the $9.8 billion to fund their $200 million dollar tax cut and they would never come up with anything,” said Jackson during the radio interview.
The proposal Republicans shared with various reporters on Friday clearly shows the tax reductions would have been paid for with increases in revenue forecasts, meaning none of the programs within the baseline budget would need to be cut.
What Republicans are essentially proposing is to give surplus revenues back to workers without first having to collect the money and disburse it via checks, as the Mills Administration has preferred in the past.
The Senate President was clear, however, that his party isn’t going to support any state income tax reductions, whether it’s the proposal Republicans actually made or the proposal Jackson said they made.
“Our colleagues you know just refused at this point to vote on the budget, that is their budget also from last session, unless we agree to do income tax cuts, and we’re just not going to agree to that,” Jackson said.
State House sources familiar with the negotiations said there appeared to be some sincere interest on the part of House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) to consider tax relief targeted at low-income workers, but that Jackson has been in the driver’s seat on the Democratic side.
House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) also disputed Jackson’s characterization of the GOP proposal.
“I don’t know what proposal he is talking about because it’s not the proposal we put forward,” said Faulkingham.
“It shows he wasn’t actually listening and taking our proposal seriously,” he said.
In a press release on Tuesday afternoon, Faulkingham echoed Stewart’s accusation that Jackson was making misleading statements about the GOP proposal.
“The Republican income tax proposal would help all taxpayers, providing on average, $300 in ongoing tax relief,” said Faulkingham. “It is pathetic that in a $10.3 billion budget, with Maine government over-collecting $1.5 billion from taxpayers in the last year, that Democrats cannot give $200 million (2% of their budget) to the families hit hardest by inflation.”
“It is tone deaf and irresponsible that state government is getting bigger while family budgets are getting smaller,” he said.
Republican lawmakers across the board feel betrayed and misled, but the House and Senate GOP caucuses have yet to coalesce around a response. Some lawmakers have considered staging a walkout when Democrats finally vote on the partisan budget in order to underscore the partisan nature of the spending bill.
Others have suggested some kind of long-running filibuster and a competing media event. But any type of parliamentary tactic would only temporarily delay Democrats from getting what they want.
Part of their problem is the reality of failing to acquire a majority in the House or Senate in last year’s elections, a reality Faulkingham acknowledged in a WGAN radio interview on Saturday.
After the current baseline budget is passed, lawmakers will consider another supplemental budget based on upcoming revenue forecasts due in April. Lawmakers are expecting another sizable surplus.
Stewart said dealing with this explosion in state revenues has led to disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. He said Democrats are looking to provide one-time expenditures, while Republicans are looking to make structural changes that will have long-term benefits.
“Yes, we’re in the minority, but that doesn’t mean the people we represent don’t matter,” he said.
State House sources have also told the Maine Wire that long-time Democratic operative and former state legislator John Martin, a.k.a. the Earl of Eagle Lake, has been spotted coming and going from the Democratic appropriations office several times this month.
Martin’s involvement is taken by many GOP members as a sign that Democrats had always planned to pursue a partisan budget and were not negotiating in good faith.
Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), the Republican lead on the Appropriations Committee, said he believes that the entire process for budget writing at the State House has become dysfunctional.
“I have to say that my overall perspective is that Maine’s budgeting process is broken,” he said.
“Really, there was $9.4 billion of the budget that is never really thoroughly reviewed at all,” he said. “It’s not thoroughly reviewed by the people of Maine.”
He said the collapse in negotiations only underscored the broken budget process.
Bennett said this is the third time he’s seen the State House move toward a partisan budget, with the other two times being 1997 and 2021.