December 5, 2013

Washington County residents have mixed reactions to plan to eliminate taxes

Maine's poorest county has struggled for years, and some wonder whether the FreeME proposal from the Maine Heritage Policy Center is the answer to overcoming poverty and boosting population.

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the American Legislative Exchange Council's 40th annual meeting. The Associated Press


This story is part of a reporting partnership between the Portland Press Herald, The Guardian - a global news organization based in London and New York - and the Texas Observer. The documents obtained by The Guardian contain 40 funding proposals from 34 states, providing a blueprint for a conservative agenda for 2014 that could have significant impact throughout the U.S. The Maine Heritage Policy Center's proposal to eliminate income and sales taxes in Washington County is among them.

Read The Guardian's coverage 

Read the Texas Observer's coverage 

Read documents for all 40 proposals.

Read the Maine proposal.


The ALEC Connection

The American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential lobbying network of Republican politicians and big businesses, plans to penalize homeowners who install their own solar panels. It's part of a plan to block state governments from promoting the expansion of wind and solar power. Read the story.


The "Prodigal Son Project" is a plan by ALEC to lure back 40 lapsed corporate members who fled the organization after criticism of its policy on gun laws. The group shapes and promotes conservative legislation at the state level across the U.S. Read the story.


Beacon Hill Institute 

Boston's Suffolk University, host of free-market researcher Beacon Hill Institute, says the institute's grant application doesn't follow the rules or match the school's mission. Read the story.

Paul Molyneaux of East Machias, a fisherman and writer who has done all of those things, says the loss of access to many of those resources, through overharvesting or mechanization, has made it harder for many to make ends meet. FreeME strikes him as not quite hitting the mark. 

“Suppose I go to the store and buy $50 worth of clothing and save $3 in taxes – that’s nice, but it’s not going to do much for me over the long haul,” Molyneaux says. “It seems like a ‘give a man a fish’ instead of a ‘teach him how to fish’ argument, because without access to resources, it’s not going to carry you very far.”

But Washington County – much of which is a four-hour drive from Portland and two hours from the nearest commercial airport or Starbucks – is not as isolated as it was, because of the spread of broadband Internet. 

“As soon as you cross into the county on Route 1, every turn you make you’re in a place even more beautiful than the one before,” says Susan Corbett, founder and CEO of Axiom Technologies, a full-service information technology company in Machias that brought broadband to large swaths of the county, which is a third larger than the state of Delaware. “People who visit are realizing that as long as they’re connected (via the Internet), does it really matter where you wrote from? You can still work while the little ones frolic in the sand. That’s changing things.”

Would FreeME make a major difference? “Maybe. It might be another tool for the toolkit,” Corbett says. “But there are a lot of people who have been laying the foundations for moving our economy forward, and that’s what’s happening.”


Chris Gardner, above, chairman of the county commissioners and executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, agrees that the primary solution to the county’s problems lies within.

“We’ve been browbeaten for so long around here, people say nothing can ever happen, and that’s been our biggest problem: our lack of vision and courage,” he says. “We’ve been retreating through the forest for 40 years, and all it’s done is get us lost. We need to stop, start digging foxholes and go on the economic offensive.”

Gardner believes that his native county can win. Take the port of Eastport: With 64 feet of water at low tide, it’s the deepest natural port in the continental U.S., relatively close to Europe, in a community with a strong industrial and maritime heritage.

With the Panama Canal undergoing widening, he notes, the world’s shipping companies are rethinking their routes and strategies, because many major ports aren’t deep enough to accommodate the larger, deeper-draft vessels that are being built. The missing piece, he argues to one and all, is a $51 million rail connection that could make the city a significant North American cargo port.

“We can sit back and hope somebody picks up the phone and calls us, or we can be problem solvers and go out into the world offering the solution to customers’ issues,” he says.

Gardner likes FreeME, because of its boldness if nothing else. “Washington County is dying, and we need to embrace new initiatives,” he says. “It’s a marketing tool if nothing else.”


In October, Gardner and the Maine Heritage Policy Center tried to win FreeME an endorsement from the county commissioners, who demurred, seeking further information.

“I think we need to look at the economic development of the entire state, not just make special provisions for one county or another,” says Commissioner Vinton Cassidy, a former mayor of Calais who, like Gardner, is a Republican. “I spent six years in the state Senate, and I can tell you that thing is never going to get through the Legislature for a whole host of reasons.”

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