Informing and Leading

Posted July 15, 2009, at 6:34 p.m.

If this is the information age, when Americans have access to words and images from an uncountable number of sources, exponentially more than just a few generations ago, it is also, sadly, the misinformation age. For better or worse, the filters of a professional news media are in disfavor, and fading fast are accountability, a strict adherence to fact and a fastidious avoidance of bias.

Now more than ever, the public needs reliable information on the issues of the day. This void is especially large that information might clash with passionately held beliefs. Case in point: the November referendums seeking to slash Maine’s vehicle excise tax and limit the growth of government through the so-called taxpayer bill of rights. The Bangor City Council has the opportunity to take a stand on these questions — that would be opinion — but it also can provide facts about what passage of these measures would mean to support that view.

Councilors in Bangor, and other elected officials across Maine, may well be apprehensive about taking sides on these issues. After all, polls show that about half of voters agree with the measures. To publicly oppose these referendums, which are being cast as ways to reduce taxes, is political sui-cide. But do voters understand the ramifications of approving, for example, the excise tax cut? And if not, who is responsible for educating them?

Newspapers continue to do their jobs in reporting on these plans, but public officials must not shy away from stating what they know to be true. The vehicle excise tax supports local road work and other municipal activities. In many towns and cities, it is the second-largest revenue source after property taxes. If voters pass the referendum to cut the excise tax, they should know that in doing so they will likely see a corresponding hike in their property tax bill.

Shifting the tax burden from one group to another is an ongoing political strategy and certainly is a legitimate approach toward aiming at some sort of equity. The governor and Legislature’s tax reform bill did this in reducing the income tax rate and broadening the sales tax, as did George W. Bush’s policies that cut taxes for the wealthiest of Americans. But clarity on the results is critical to understanding. Democracy relies on such clarity.

The Bangor City Council and other elected officials can inform voters — who will have the final say — by individually or collectively taking a stand on these referendums. Even if the Bangor council merely states, as Councilor David Nealley suggested, the facts about how much revenue will be lost if the excise tax measure passes, they will have done its duty.

Municipal bodies may have taken this impulse too far in the past, as some boards passed resolutions opposing the Iraq war and other nonlocal issues. But when it comes to cutting off an essential source of revenue for providing municipal services, councilors must be players in the debate.

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