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Maine has chance to improve its economic and environmental standing
Bills to fix the tax system and establish a state energy policy deserve support.

Stranded once again at Chicago's O'Hare airport last Friday, I stayed the night at the O'Hare Hilton, the only hotel that is actually within walking distance of the terminals.

As I checked out Saturday morning to head home, I reviewed my bill for the night, $99 for the room and $15.25 for lodging tax. That is a lodging tax of more than 15 percent.

I almost never notice the lodging tax, but the controversy in Maine over the increase in lodging tax moved me to check. To tell you the truth, I was much more impressed by the reasonable room rate.

I cite this example because of the Maine Voices column last week in the Press Herald by Bob Smith, the owner of the Sebasco Harbor Resort, decrying the proposed lodging tax increase from 7 percent to 8.5 percent, which is part of a broader piece of tax reform legislation that will also lower Maine's top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent.

Smith's concerns are misplaced. How many prospective Sebasco guests are likely to make their decision to come to this lovely resort (where my daughter was married) based on the lodging tax?

Not many, particularly when the daily rates average $200 or more per person.

Alanna Peterkin, owner of Head Games Hair Salon in Portland, voiced a similar concern to me when cutting my hair last week.

She had been contacted by one of her suppliers about the fact that the bill would also add sales tax to her cuts and related services.

Again, it seems unlikely that I and any other Head Games customers will drive to Portsmouth to get our cuts just to avoid an additional $2.50 in tax.

Both of these entrepreneurs also should realize that they are likely to benefit significantly from the other provision of this tax reform legislation, reducing Maine's income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent.

Sponsored by House Majority Leader John Piotti, D-Unity, this tax reform legislation (LD 1088) is the product of a long, exemplary consultative process. It is one of the best examples of bipartisan effort on a complex issue that I have seen in many years of Augusta-watching.

Moreover, it has significant potential to improve Maine's competitive positioning in attracting entrepreneurial talent to the state while also addressing the need to broaden Maine's sales tax base to make it steadier in difficult economic times.

This is a bill whose time has come. Its passage will go a long way toward making the record of this session of the Legislature a positive one.

Another bill of similar importance is the energy policy bill developed by the Joint Select Committee on Energy.

This committee has taken parts of proposals by the governor, House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, and Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, to craft a comprehensive energy policy for Maine.

There are worthwhile aspects to all of the proposals the committee considered. The most comprehensive, and in some ways audacious, proposal is the bill sponsored by Berry and crafted with lots of input from Opportunity Maine.

Opportunity Maine is the forward-thinking nonprofit that developed the eponymous program of tax credits for Maine college graduates who continue to work in Maine.

Now they have turned their attention to energy conservation and "green jobs."

Their proposal would have levied a surcharge on utilities and oil dealers to fund a comprehensive weatherization and energy conservation program that would significantly reduce Maine's dependence on heating oil.

It is a bold plan, and one with great promise.

The Joint Committee's proposal adopts much of the program structure proposed by Opportunity Maine but without the energy surcharge.

The program will be initially funded mostly with federal stimulus dollars, leaving a hole of at least $50 million to be funded in some way once the federal dollars run out.

The bill is a good start to addressing Maine's long-term energy policy and another good example of consultative process. Committee Co-Chairs Phil Bartlett, D-Cumberland, and John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, have done credible work here – even though there are a few loose ends.

Over the next few weeks you will hear much about lots of bills being pushed through in the final days of the session.

Most of these last-minute bills, hopefully, will be voted down, but keep your eyes on the fate of tax reform and the comprehensive energy bill.

These are worth a call to your legislator, a letter to the editor, and a discussion with your neighbor.

As odd as it may seem, your voice does count. Let it be heard.