Where LePage’s nonprofit tax plan could hit hardest

The sweeping changes Gov. Paul LePage has proposed for Maine’s tax system have raised many questions about the people and towns that stand to benefit and those that don’t. One portion of that plan would take away state aid to cities and towns and let them tax nonprofits instead.

By geography, major service centers — think Portland, Bangor and Lewiston — appear to have the best chance at making up lost money from revenue sharing because they have some of the largest nonprofits, such as hospitals and private colleges.

But that conclusion comes from a review of data that’s deceptively spotty (like really really spotty). I’ve taken a stab at it below, but first: the caveats.

Under the proposal, the first $500,000 of a nonprofit’s property valuation would be exempt, so if their total assessed value is lower than that, it won’t be taxed at all. That creates a problem  for this analysis for two reasons. First, assessments are reported as a lump sums, so it’s impossible with this data to say how much of the assessed exempt value might fall under the $500,000 mark in each town and wouldn’t be taxed at all. Second, it’s unclear how accurate those estimates are because assessors and nonprofits don’t have a financial incentive to get them right.

Just for an example, if a town had an estimated $20 million in exempt property but that was broken out in chunks of less than $500,000, there would be no new tax base. Alternatively, the estimates might not count every nickel and dime in exempt property because those numbers don’t translate to tax dollars.

Separately, it’s unclear how adding to a municipality’s total valuation will affect the money it receives for schools. The formula determining the state’s portion of school funding uses that valuation as a measure of a town’s ability to pay its own education bills, so a higher valuation could also mean less state money for education, which is typically the highest cost for municipalities.

So, all of that leaves an analysis to make the assumption that the latest exempt property value estimates are accurate and also to ignore the $500,000 cut-off, which would likely make the picture more grim for municipalities (for good measure, towns with less than $500,000 in exempt property I counted as having none that would be taxable under LePage’s plan; for those with more than $500,000, I subtracted that amount once).

About 439 towns and cities (out of 488 in my analysis) are likely to get less from taxing exempt property than they do from state aid, which the LePage budget would phase out over two years, ending entirely by June 30, 2016. (The Maine Municipal Association estimates there are 492 municipalities in the state.)

The analysis below isolates just the impact of replacing that state aid, known as revenue sharing, with tax from now exempt properties and does not factor in other aspects of the proposed budget.

The Maine Municipal Association, which has fought reductions to revenue sharing in the past, has also conducted a broad analysis and survey of 39 towns to evaluate this aspect of the budget, also finding it would generate about $40 million in new revenue but would not make up for the loss of revenue sharing in 2016.

Valuation estimates from the Maine Revenue Services from 2013 showed 343 municipalities that have any exempt property that could be taxed under the proposed budget. About 145 towns would get none. That’s reflected in the first panel, with the two large bars.

I used the exempt property numbers — for charitable and benevolent organizations (nonprofits), literary and scientific institutions (private colleges and universities) and hospitals — from the Maine Revenue Service and current tax rates from the treasurer’s office to estimate new revenue that each town would get from taxing those properties.

The revenue sharing projections for 2015 also came from the treasurer’s office, which I used to compare against the estimate for new revenue. Any towns not included in both data sets are not included in the views above, but the total of 488 is close to all of the municipalities in the state.

In general, the budget has introduced a lot of new questions for the state’s tax system and economy because it proposes opening up new sources of state revenue for which there is not historical collections data.

But it is clear that the proposed changes would affect a lot of cities and towns, drastically change the state’s tax system and will be the subject of close scrutiny and battles in the Legislature in the session ahead.

(From me: big thanks to opinion page editor Matt Stone and State House reporter Mario Moretto for helping make my writing of the above as clear as possible. But don’t contact them with any issues I didn’t cover about the analysis above. Email, Tweet or ring Yours Truly.) 

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.