Reduced state aid to municipalities and schools is what’s putting the pinch on taxpayers.
For years, Gov. LePage has blamed schools for being unwilling to control costs. Now, he says, it was the land trusts all along.
On the radio, in his recent State of the State address and in a new report to legislators, the governor blames the land trusts for rising property taxes in Maine, because the land they protect is taken out of development and “off the rolls.”
He’s right, taxes have been rising. But even though he has shifted the blame, he remains wrong about the reason.
In making his case, the governor keeps saying that Maine has more than $18 billion in tax-exempt property, equaling a total tax loss of more than $330 million a year.
But $11.8 billion worth is owned by federal, state and municipal governments, and no one is suggesting that portion be taxed.
Another $3 billion worth of land is owned by nonprofits such as hospitals, and $2 billion belongs to colleges and universities. LePage has tried to tax those two groups before, but there are a number of good reasons not to, and he has lost each time.
The rest is conservation land, but only some of it has been preserved through land trusts.
It’s that small piece that the governor blames for rising taxes, even though on some level taxes are paid on the vast majority of land conserved through trusts (and in other cases, land trusts make payments in lieu of taxes).
It’s not the same level of taxation that would be provided to a municipality if the land were fully developed, but that is a trade-off worth making in most cases. It’s hard to look at the working forestland conserved in recent years and say it would be better off as a housing development, or that the coastline preserved for use by all Mainers would be better off as an exclusive resort. It’s not like private development is being crowded out by conservation.
The governor may have a point that some communities are able to withstand that trade-off better than others. A recent report from the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting shows how conservation is felt more acutely in places such as Lubec in Washington County than in more prosperous communities farther south, and how officials in the towns that are feeling the pinch want more of a say in what land gets conserved.
But that’s a fix that requires a scalpel, not LePage’s usual hammer. And if the people of Lubec are worried about property taxes, they should look beyond land conservation and on to the State House and the governor’s office.
Property taxes have increased in recent years, but they’ve gone up throughout the state, not just in the places where land has been conserved. In fact, the amount of tax-exempt property has not changed much in the past eight years, even as property taxes have risen.
What has changed, however, is the amount of state aid to schools and municipalities.
According to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the state has underfunded municipal revenue-sharing by $602 million from its traditional level since LePage took office. The percentage of school funding provided by the state has fallen, too; if it had been held at 2010 levels, there would have been another $500 million helping to offset property taxes.
That’s far more money than conservation lands could have generated under any plausible scenario.
Guess it’s time for Gov. LePage to find a new scapegoat.