Democrats won, but voters still hate taxes

For all the (not incorrect) talk about “blue waves” and “Republican rebukes” in the election results, there is one undertow which has been under-reported:

Voters still hate taxes.

In Maine, one of the biggest winners on Nov. 6 was not Angus King. Or Chellie Pingree. Or Janet Mills. It was the “No on 1” campaign, carrying the day with nearly 63 percent of the vote. Despite trying to justify a massive tax hike with a worthy cause — helping older Mainers stay in their homes — voters resoundingly rejected the proposal.

We joined other states in shutting down tax increases or restricting their elected officials from raising future rates. The “lower tax” position in Missouri, Colorado, Montana, Florida, North Carolina, and South Dakota all prevailed election night.

It presents an interesting introduction into the 129th Maine Legislature. Democrats made big gains, solidly securing their positions in both chambers. Those elected officials further to the left are likely to try and advance tax increases as proposed policy.  More moderate members — whose districts likely were staunch against Question 1 — will counsel caution.

Janet Mills celebrates her victory in Maine’s governor’s race on Nov. 6. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

And Gov.-elect Mills will be faced with the same challenge as the last Democratic governor, John Baldacci. Both chief executives hail from the more moderate side of their party. However, they have little direct power; the formal check on the legislative branch is the veto. Gov. Paul LePage used it liberally, while Baldacci used it conservatively. Which example will Mills follow?

She was one of many Democrats opposed to the tax hike contained in Question 1. And the Democratic majority in the Maine House, led by Speaker Sara Gideon, repealed the tax increase that eked out a ballot box victory two years ago, primarily by running up the score in Portland.

While it may be tempting to watch the internecine warfare within the Democratic caucus over taxes gleefully, Republicans need to be better. Governing is serious business, and policy should override partisanship any day.

When the left-wing members of the Democratic caucus call for a “tax the rich” scheme to fund some undoubtedly worthy cause, the GOP should stand unified with their more mainstream Democratic colleagues — hopefully with Mills as a backstop — and say “no.” If they need a reason, the Question 1 vote totals are only a web page away.

None of this is to argue there can’t be a real discussion around Maine’s tax regime. There should be. For all the talk about addressing rising property taxes, very little gets done. Why? Because taxes follow spending, and our government service delivery model is expensive.

Mills would be well-served by continuing LePage’s efforts at voluntary, collaborative regionalization in our educational system.  Baldacci’s approach — forcing consolidation by threatening funding — didn’t work. And, as a former district attorney and soon-to-be former attorney general, Mills has a unique perspective on our criminal justice system. More specifically, the substantial costs on Maine taxpayers imposed by over-incarceration and lack of efficiency in our infrastructure.

These areas are fairly boring as policy policy questions go. It doesn’t have the cache of gun debates, the philosophical disputes surrounding hunting practices like bear baiting, or the head-scratching, passion-inducing symbolism surrounding the declaration of a “state dessert.”

But taxes follow spending.  And, as we saw in Maine and nationwide, voters still don’t like taxes. So maybe there is an opportunity for Republicans and moderate Democrats, including Mills, to work together to continue existing efforts to reduce the cost of Maine state and local government.

On Jan. 2, the work starts in earnest.

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.