Maine tax referendum getting scant attention

Posted Oct. 12, 2009, at 7:59 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In an election season dominated by gay marriage, supporters of a taxpayer bill of rights referendum brought in a Colorado professor Monday to tout the benefits of the ballot measure and draw attention to their campaign.

The chatter surrounding the so-called TABOR II referendum — Question 4 on the ballot — is quiet compared with 2006, when 55 percent of voters rejected a similar item. If approved by voters on Nov. 3, the referendum would impose limits on increases in state and municipal government spending and taxes.

The 2006 campaign drew an abundance of media and public attention. But the focus this election is on Question 1, which asks voters if they want to overturn Maine’s new law legalizing same-sex marriage.

There are seven referendum questions on the ballot, and with so much attention on gay marriage, the others are being largely overlooked, said Sandy Maisel, director of Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.

“There’s only so much buzz citizens can take in an off-year election,” Maisel said.

The TABOR Now campaign held a news conference with University of Colorado economics professor Barry Poulson, who touted the benefits of the referendum.

Poulson said TABOR II, which is modeled on a constitutional amendment Colorado adopted in 1992, would give Maine’s economy a boost while reining in government growth. He said 30 states have varying laws limiting government spending and taxes, but Colorado’s is the only one that is branded as a taxpayer bill of rights.

Critics say Colorado’s law has resulted in “devastating cuts” that have undermined state and local services, and the same thing would happen in Maine.

As Poulson spoke, a group of some 20 people held “Vote Yes on 4” signs behind him as a backdrop, but only one TV camera and a couple of reporters were on hand.

The TABOR Now campaign has not run any TV, radio or print ads. The opposition group, Citizens Unified for Maine’s Future, has not run any print ads and has run only a limited number of radio ads, primarily in rural areas. It launched its second TV ad on Monday.

David Crocker, chairman of the TABOR Now campaign, agreed the gay marriage issue has drawn attention from Question 4. At the same time, voters are more educated about the matter this time around, he said.

Maine voters rejected a similar taxpayer bill of rights in 2006 and another tax-cap referendum in 2004.

“In terms of people’s awareness, they are much farther ahead than they were in 2006,” Crocker said. “People understand overspending at the state level like they didn’t in 2006. And they’ve had three more years to see what’s been happening in Augusta with the financial train wreck we’ve seen since then.”

It’s understandable that gay marriage is stealing the spotlight, said Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for Citizens Unified for Maine’s Future.

“Question 1 is new. And TABOR’s been here before,” she said.

In 2006, there were only two questions on the ballot: TABOR and a constitutional amendment that generated little interest among voters.

Maisel said he thinks it would be good to limit the number for questions in any given election.

“When you have a number of significant [questions] on the ballot at the same time making policy, with few people knowing what they’re voting on, I think that’s a bad way to make policy,” he said.

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