Tax Answers Not on Ballot

Posted Feb. 27, 2009, at 6:16 p.m.

The appeal of tax-related questions that will appear on the November ballot is deceptively simple: Vote yes and your taxes will go down. Unfortunately, reality is a bit more complicated.

The Secretary of State’s Office this week certified four issues to appear on the ballot after determining that backers had collected a sufficient number of signatures. One, called TABOR Now, is a new version of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which was rejected by voters two years ago. Like its predecessor, it would require voter approval of all tax increases and restrict growth in government spending.

Another question would reduce the state’s automobile excise tax.

A third seeks to repeal the school consolidation law.

The fourth would change the state’s medical marijuana law.

Backers of the first two questions promise that “tax relief is just one election away.” A catchy slogan, but one that denies reality.

Taxes have gotten a bad name. No one wants to pay them, but plenty of people want the services — paved roads, jails, protections for abused children, lakes stocked with fish — that they pay for. If the point of TABOR Now is to choke state government, it will succeed; the same is true of the excise tax cut for municipal government. If it is, as its backers say, an attempt to improve life in Maine, it will fail. A reasoned discussion of what services the people of Maine want to pay for — and how much they are willing to pay to maintain them — is not possible through a referendum campaign. This is the work the Legislature — the peoples’ elected representatives — is now doing to balance the state’s budget in response to dramatic revenue declines due to the national recession.

After being told for years that Maine’s tax burden was the highest in the country, last year it was revealed that Maine’s average state and local tax burden in 2008 was 10 percent of income, ranking the state at 15th, according to the Tax Foundation. More important, Maine’s tax burden is only slightly above the national average of 9.7 percent and it is moving downward, as it should be.

This does not mean that Maine’s tax burden is acceptable, but shows that it is not being ignored.

Further, the reality is that state government has been fiscally restrained over the last several years, and general tax increases have been avoided. Gov. Baldacci deserves credit for being the first chief executive in decades to actually reduce state spending. His proposed budget for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 totals $6.1 billion. The 2008-09 budget was $6.3 billion. If spending kept pace with the average increases in recent years, the next biennial budget would have totaled $6.8 billion.

In other words, he has more than met a requirement of the TABOR referendum that state budget growth not surpass inflation, plus population growth.

Municipalities also have met spending caps that were part of the law requiring the state to fund 55 percent of education, which required that state to spend close to an additional $1 billion on kindergarten through 12th-grade education — money that was meant to lower municipal taxes.

Schools, by the way, continue to consistently exceed the spending caps, yet a ballot question seeks to repeal the consolidation law that most school districts are implementing. The law certainly has flaws, but schools have not earned the public’s trust when it comes to reining in spending.

The November ballot also is likely to include bond requests for infrastructure work and research and development. What bitter irony it will be if backers of the tax and spending reform measures oppose borrowing money to boost employment — the surest way to ease the state’s tax burden by raising incomes.

As past efforts have shown, tax reform is difficult work. Trying to short-circuit the process through ballot questions will only shortchange the state in the future.

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