Politics And Other Mistakes: The ballad of the Hulk

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In the comic-book world of Maine politics, the conservative think tank called the Maine Heritage Policy Center has often played the role of Dr. Bruce Banner, the tortured soul whose body harbors a gamma-ray-created monster called the Incredible Hulk.

Portrayed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Banner is mild mannered and reflective. If he were asked to comment on the governor’s controversial budget, he’d probably have something thoughtful to say, much like what the MHPC concluded in its recently released analysis of that proposal:

“This budget, despite the challenges inherent in the Maine Legislature, is one of the best chances we will ever have to institute spending discipline in Augusta. Now is the time to push hard for smaller budgets and lower spending, to continue putting pressure on reformers to pursue solutions to the intractable programs, departments and priorities that have poisoned Maine budgets for decades.”

LePage’s opinion on the same matter: “Hulk smash!”

Which, in spite of his close relationship with the center, isn’t quite the same thing.

For many years, it was as if the governor and the MHPC were a single being. They were in near-perfect agreement on policy issues, favoring reduced spending and lower taxes. When it came to tax reform, the only type they supported was tax cuts. In 2010, a Democratic plan to expand the sales tax and lower the income tax caused the center’s blood pressure to rise, its skin to start turning green and its fiscal instincts to go all Hulk mode.

“[A] broader retail sales taxes will reduce investment in Maine,” wrote then-CEO J. Scott Moody. “In the long run, this means lower productivity, lower wages and fewer jobs. As I’ve said before, Maine is replacing a bad tax (the income tax) with a worse tax (the sales tax). That’s not tax reform.”

Or in LePage-speak, “Hulk smash!”

Except, a broader sales tax is what the governor is now proposing. And the center’s current boss, Matthew Gagnon, and his staff have had to tread very carefully in order to reconcile their group’s past position with what it currently supports. They’ve also had to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate LePage. To that end, MHPC’s report is very Bruce Bannerish on the surface, saying nice things about the governor’s budget, while at the same time, in Hulk-like fashion, turning much of the spending plan’s foundation to rubble.

Contrary to its position in 2010, the center now believes that expanding the sales tax is a swell idea. It even thinks LePage’s approach might be too timid.

Too timid? The Hulk?

“There is room for additional extensions [of the sales tax],” write Gagnon and pals, “which would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding, which again could be applied to rate cutting [for the income tax].”

As another super-powerful comic character called the Thing used to say, “Well brush my teeth and call me Smiley.”

(Compared to the Hulk, the Thing is a poet.)

Of course, that extra money from slapping a sales tax on nearly everything wouldn’t go toward new spending. In fact, the center is disappointed that LePage’s budget calls for increasing state expenditures over the next two years by about $166 million. It suggests cutting that amount immediately. Then it would use those savings plus the additional loot from the broader sales tax to reduce the income tax even more than LePage’s proposal. Like the governor, the center favors eliminating itemized deductions for stuff like mortgage interest and charitable donations, and flattening the tax so almost everyone pays the same rate.

Speaking of the same rate, the center isn’t happy about LePage’s scheme to increase the sales-tax bite from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent. To paraphrase its position in non-political terms: “Hulk smash!”

Instead, the center would freeze the rate at 5.5 and rely on the expanded field of taxable items and services to cover the losses caused by income tax reductions.

Even so, the center claims it “wholeheartedly endorses” LePage’s tax and economic development goals – so long as the methods of achieving those goals are subjected to gamma-ray exposure that will cause them to undergo significant changes. Those alterations that will make them more aggressive and more difficult to sell to legislative Democrats. And even some Republicans.

It’s almost as if the governor had somehow been transformed into the restrained and respectful Bruce Banner, while the center is now the rampaging Hulk.

Well, not quite. The LePage administration is riddled with former MHPC staffers, many of whom had a direct hand in crafting his budget. They’re unlikely to be intimidated by their former employer’s qualified support for their tax-reform efforts. And even if they were, there’s no chance their boss will suddenly develop an inclination to back down. Because, like it says in the comics:

“The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets!”

Or as the Thing says, “It’s clobberin’ time!” Get your licks in by emailing aldiamon@hernihill.net.

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