Better Coverage of BETR
by Al Diamon
The Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement – or BETR – program has always been controversial. Begun under the administration of former Gov. Angus King, now a U.S. senator, it requires the state to reimburse businesses for property taxes they’re charged by local municipalities on new equipment. The idea is to encourage investments and create jobs, but critics have long claimed it amounts to little more than corporate welfare.
Gov. Paul LePage has proposed some major changes to BETR, essentially exempting companies from paying the tax in the first place. The Lewiston Sun Journal’s Scott Thistle had a good piece on Jan. 30 explaining the consequences of this shift for businesses, municipalities and the state budget.
Thistle also provides some BETR-related information I don’t recall ever having seen in the Maine media. In a chart accompanying his article that shows the top 10 recipients of BETR checks in the past year, he also included his employer as a footnote. The Sun Journal ranks 95th on the list, having received nearly $68,000 in 2012.
That sum could be interpreted as representing a sizable conflict of interest for the Lewiston paper in covering the debate over changing BETR, a conflict that it quite rightly (finally) disclosed. So, credit where it’s due for (belatedly) coming clean.
Now, other news organizations need to do the same. In a Jan. 31 piece, the Bangor Daily News mentioned that Verso Paper topped last year’s list of BETR beneficiaries, taking in over $4 million, but staff writer Matthew Stone didn’t bother to reveal if the BDN also received a check. As Stone noted, that figure is readily available from the Maine Revenue Service, although he probably could have gotten it from one of his bosses, too.
That lack of transparency has been standard operating procedure at such news outlets as MaineToday Media, television and radio stations, and Web-based operations dating back at least five years, according to what I can find in my files and in a Google search.
It’s time that changes. For the … um … better.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.