Is it the will of the people to penalize marriage?

With all the hoopla occurring this week, two reports released last week have gotten overshadowed.  However, those reports focus on impacts more immediate to Mainers than guilty pleas or Supreme Court justices. They deal with ballot questions, past and present.

The first was released by the conservative-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center. Titled “The Will of the People?”, it explored our citizens’ initiative process. The punchline? In the past nine years, over 70 percent of money spent to influence Maine voters on ballot questions has come from out-of-state. Out of the top 10 campaigns ranked by total contributions, only one raised a majority of their money from Mainers.  It was the Oxford County casino campaign, which ultimately won and was later sold to Kentucky-based Churchill Downs.

Feel free to shoot the messenger, but the data is what it is. Maine is a “cheap date” for outside influences. It costs much more to run political campaigns elsewhere; if the interest groups can convince us to pass their preferred policy at the ballot box, they can leverage that in other states and in Washington as a fait accompli.

And they are trying it this fall.

Mainers will vote in November whether to expand home care services through a 3.8 percent income tax surcharge. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The second report released dealt with November’s Question 1. While the advertising has not yet ramped up, it will ask voters to effectively hike the top income tax rate by 3.8 percent. Why? To fund a program run by interest groups, without the normal checks and balances and oversight from our elected representatives. The program itself is noble; helping to care for our aging population. But hiking taxes and taking responsibility for the public treasury away from the Legislature is less so.

The Maine state economist released her study of the economic impact of what a “yes” vote would mean. Her conclusion was that the Maine economy would lose up to $916 million over the next five years, while personal income in our state would drop between $1.4 billion and $2 billion. Our population growth and labor force would drop; not a recipe for prosperity when we are already the oldest state in the Union. In short, Question 1 is probably a bad deal.

Part of her analysis stems from the language of the bill. As written, it can be read to penalize married couples. If you have a husband who is a state trooper making $80,000 with overtime and a wife working as a nurse earning the same, they could be hit with the new tax rate. This creates a “marriage penalty,” since neither would pay the higher rate if they never got hitched.

The advocates who wrote the bill claim that is not their intent. But after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing their policy, you would think they might be able to draft it correctly. And lest anyone claim this is fear mongering by Republicans, the Attorney General’s Office — led by Janet Mills, Democratic candidate for governor — has refused to issue an opinion backing the interpretation of the left-wing groups pushing the proposal.

The identity of those groups is also obfuscated. The Maine People’s Alliance is pushing for it, as they have with many other ballot questions. More than half their campaign money comes from outside Maine. In their most recent Ethics Commission filing, they reported raising over $20,000 from individuals giving $50 or less. However, under state law, there is no name or location associated with those dollars; we have no idea where they are from.

The other group pushing for a “yes” vote is called Mainers for Homecare. They happen to share the same office address, the same treasurer, and same phone number with the Maine People’s Alliance. “Mainers for Homecare has two donors at $100,000 each, cash. Who are they? The out-of-state donor is SEIU, one of the largest unions in America. The “in-state” donor? The Maine People’s Alliance. Who get a majority of their money from out-of-state.

This tangled web is why the referendum process has come under scrutiny. One of the online cheerleaders for Question 1 is a New York-based group trying to push a similar proposal in their state. Maine is the cheap date they are using to test things out before the big dance in the Empire State.

So while you may have missed the reports detailing the out-of-state influences pushing questions injurious to Maine’s economy, they are worth a closer look. They will probably impact you much more than developments in Washington.

Besides, I have to submit this column on Wednesday.  And I have no idea what hoopla will happen next.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.