How Paul LePage, Running to Lead Maine, Benefited From Florida Tax Breaks




  • In Politics
  • 2022-09-25 14:29:01Z
  • By The New York Times
 

As governor of Maine for two terms until 2019, Paul LePage, a Republican, gained a reputation as one of the pre-Donald Trump era's most unfiltered politicians.

He said he wanted to tell President Barack Obama to "go to hell," and he told the NAACP to "kiss my butt." He made racist comments about drug dealers who supposedly travel to Maine and "impregnate a young white girl before they leave."

Making a comeback attempt now against his successor, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, LePage is focusing heavily in his campaign on a push to phase out Maine's income tax. He argues that the change is needed to keep wealthy residents from moving to Florida for just long enough each year to take advantage of the Sunshine State's tax breaks.

But LePage and his wife, Ann, who have owned property in Florida for more than a decade, have themselves benefited from that state's tax laws while living in the Maine governor's mansion, and again as he campaigns to return to the job. From 2009-15, and also from 2018 through the end of this year, the couple received property tax breaks reserved for permanent Florida residents, public records show.

The properties in question, both in Ormond Beach, are a home that the LePages bought in 2008 and sold in 2017, and another that they purchased in 2018 and still own. For both homes, the couple have sought and received what is called a homestead exemption, which is meant to apply only to primary residences in Florida.

The sum the couple saved over the years is relatively small: a little over $8,500, according to a New York Times analysis of public records.

But this is not the first time the LePages have faced scrutiny over such a tax matter - in 2010, Florida officials fined Ann LePage $1,400 before rescinding the penalty - and Paul LePage's focus on taxes in the current campaign for governor could open him up to attacks from Democrats.

His campaign defended the tax moves, saying that Ann LePage's mother had used the Florida home as her primary residence from 2009 until her death in 2015, when the couple removed the first homestead exemption. Ann LePage's mother had scleroderma, a chronic disease that causes hardening of the skin.

"Mrs. LePage's mother would visit Augusta, but due to her condition, she spent a large amount of time, especially in cooler fall, winter and spring periods, at that permanent residence" in Florida, said Brent Littlefield, a spokesperson for LePage's campaign. "Mrs. LePage also traveled there in winter months to care for her. Her mother kept that as her primary residence while she was alive."

The campaign did not comment on the second exemption held from 2018 through this year. Attempts to reach Ann LePage directly were unsuccessful.

At campaign events, Paul LePage has spoken about the couple's home in Florida and has criticized a Maine law requiring residents who split their time between the two states - so-called snowbirds - to spend at least 183 days, or just over half a year, in Florida in order to pay the state's lighter tax burden.

"We go down to Naples, Florida, to raise money from Mainers because that's where all the money is - and it's unfortunate that they have to leave for six months and a day," LePage said in Bangor last month. "I have no problem going to Florida. We go to Florida, we have a home in Florida, but it's for January and February, not for six months and a day. It's unfortunate that we have this crazy tax and this is what happens."

But although he said that he and his wife were in Florida for only a couple of months a year, they have painted a different picture for Florida's tax collectors over the years.

In his final months as governor, LePage told reporters in November 2018 that he had a home in Florida and planned to move there because the state had no income tax. But by that time, records show, he and his wife had already claimed a homestead exemption on their Ormond Beach property - indicating that Florida had been the primary residence of Maine's governor and first lady since March 2018, when they bought the home.

That assertion meant that the four-bedroom home, about 15 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean, was eligible for a Florida homestead exemption, which shaves $50,000 from the taxable value of qualified primary residences in the state.

After leaving office in 2019 because of Maine's prohibition on serving a third consecutive term, LePage obtained a Florida driver's license and registered to vote in the state. Then, in February 2020, he said he was considering a bid for a third term, and when he announced his run last year, he cited criticisms of Mills' response to the pandemic. He switched his voter registration back to Maine in 2020 and publicized pictures of himself putting Maine license plates back on his car.

The couple have rented a home in Edgecomb, Maine, since 2020, and LePage has been campaigning in the state for much of the past year. But it was not until June that Ann LePage informed a property appraiser in Florida that she and her husband were no longer residents of that state, according to the county appraiser's office. The tax break will stay in effect through the end of this year, according to an official in the appraiser's office in Flagler County, which handled the matter.

Jon Alper, a Florida lawyer who specializes in asset protection, said the circumstances of the LePages' homestead exemption claims were "certainly atypical."

"It's possible under the law, but usually if one spouse is in the house, they're both in the house," he said.

The LePages have struggled with tax issues while toggling between the two states for more than a decade.

In 2008, while LePage was mayor of Waterville, Maine, his wife bought a home in Ormond Beach, not far from the home they would buy a decade later in the same city. She claimed the Florida homestead exemption even though she was also claiming a homestead exemption on a house she owned in Waterville. Both states require homeowners to certify that a property is their main residence in order to qualify for the exemption.

That misstep was reported in 2010, during LePage's first campaign for governor. Florida tax officials originally fined his wife $1,400 for misleading them about her residency status in the state, but they withdrew the penalty shortly after, citing an explanation from her that her mother, Rita DeRosby, was living in the house. A seldom-used provision in the Florida tax code allows homeowners to claim a homestead exemption if a dependent is residing on the property.

Months after Ann LePage was cleared of wrongdoing, DeRosby joined the family's move into the Maine governor's mansion, according to local reports. When DeRosby died in 2015, her obituary said she had "spent the last eight years of her life residing" with the LePages.

Paul LePage's campaign proposal to eliminate Maine's state income tax has prompted criticism from some Democratic officials that local governments would be forced to raise property taxes to offset costs.

While he was governor, LePage tried to eliminate Maine's homestead exemption, a proposal that would have denied an estimated 213,000 Mainers benefits similar to those he enjoyed in Florida, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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