Colorado official warns of TABOR II ‘damage’

Posted Sept. 10, 2009, at 11:11 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Come November, Mainers again will be asked to consider a ballot measure that aims to limit state and local government spending increases.

And if the political climate is anything like it was in 2006, when Mainers last weighed in on the concept, the debate will be a hot one.

The fourth question on the coming ballot, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights II, or TABOR II, aims to rein in state and local government spending and would require voter approval for tax increases.

Supporters say the measure would force government to live within its means.

Foes say it would take all control away from local governing boards and bodies and force the state to choose between funding schools or roads, health care or public services, to name a few.

During a community forum Thursday night at Eastern Maine Community College, opponents of TABOR II heard from a Colorado official who described how a similar measure has worked in that state.

Steve Johnson, who is visiting Maine this week, said that 20 states have considered — and rejected — taxpayer bills of rights. Colorado became the first and only state to go that route when it adopted its version of TABOR as a constitutional amendment in 1992. The state, he said, has been dealing with the aftermath ever since.

“It did a tremendous amount of damage that none of us anticipated,” said Johnson, a former Colorado state senator who now serves as a county commissioner.

According to Johnson, TABOR has been so disastrous that in 2005 Colorado voters passed a five-year TABOR timeout. Though the state touts its low tax rates for businesses, he said, the bulk of the $10 million repeal campaign was funded by businesses, he said.

According to Johnson, TABOR doesn’t work because the formula on which it’s based is flawed. The formula, for example, is based in part on the Consumer Price Index, which fails to take into account the usually faster inflation rate for goods and services purchased by state governments.

It also hinges on overall population growth, which means it does not take into account the relative growth of segments of the population in need of extra services, such as children, the elderly and people with handicaps, he said.

At the same time, TABOR prevents increased spending when conditions improve, referring to that phenomenon as the “ratchet-down effect.”

And while TABOR promises refunds to taxpayers, Johnson said the checks occasionally issued, which amount to $200 to $250 for married couples filing joint returns, are more than eclipsed by new or increased fees for government services, many of which used to be funded as part of municipal and school budgets.

Despite the opposition among attendees of Thursday’s forum, TABOR II also has its supporters.

“Look at what’s happening in Augusta,” Portland lawyer David Crocker, chairman of the state campaign to pass TABOR II, said Wednesday.

“Spending is completely out of control. The only thing the political class can tell us is to give us more money. It’s time for the people to decide on spending and tax increases,” said Crocker, who also sits on Maine Heritage Policy Center’s advisory board.

“I’ve been deeply concerned actually by the fiscal difficulties facing the state of Maine,” he said. “I’ve watched for the past decade as state spending has gone through the roof and increased taxation.”

Crocker says that TABOR “doesn’t cut anything. It slows the natural increase of government. It just allows governments to grow at a rate of what we like to call a natural increase.”

Bangor Daily News writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.

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