BREWER, Maine — Representatives from both sides of the citizen’s initiative known as TABOR II debated at a forum Wednesday that highlighted a stark difference of opinion about government’s role in deciding state and municipal budgets.
Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative lobbying group that drafted the spending cap initiative, said the latest Taxpayer Bill of Rights proposal is about building prosperity in Maine.
“We think the way to do that is by building the private sector. The other side says ‘build government,’” Bowen said during Wednesday’s forum at Jeff’s Catering hosted by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.
Christopher “Kit” St. John, representing the liberal-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, said municipalities and the state already are cutting back spending habits, and he challenged Bowen on the real goal of Question 4.
“It seems to me that you want to shrink government so that it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub,” St. John said, paraphrasing from Grover Norquist, head of the national anti-government group Americans for Tax Relief, who has been invited to speak at a Maine Heritage Policy Center event this week.
Question 4, An Act to Provide Tax Relief, reads: “Do you want to change the existing formulas that limit state and local government spending and require voter approval by referendum for spending over those limits and for increases in state taxes?”
Sen. Carol Weston, R-Montville, speaking in favor of Question 4, said it would give the state a mechanism to inject moderation and balance into a budget process that has lacked both.
“We’re spending faster than our people can earn,” she said. “This [TABOR II] says ‘let’s take a step back.’”
Rep. Jim Martin, D-Orono, who opposes TABOR II, said it is unrealistic to expect state and local government to treat budgets the same way taxpayers do. He called Question 4 a one-size-fits-all approach that undercuts the job he and his colleagues were sent to Augusta to tackle.
“There is always an example of where someone thinks efficiency can be improved,” he said. “That’s fair, but TABOR is a hatchet.”
Each side referenced a similar TABOR initiative in the state of Colorado. Bowen said that state’s version had led to tremendous population and business growth. St. John, however, said Colorado was growing long before TABOR was approved there, and he said voters recently have sought to suspend the initiative.
That both sides can point to the same example to back up their claim speaks to the complexities and rhetoric behind the TABOR II debate.
John Diamond, chairman of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber would decide next week on whether to take a position on TABOR II. The state Chamber of Commerce has opposed Question 4.