Ask Mainers if they would like to see their automobile excise taxes reduced and an overwhelming majority would probably answer yes.
Now ask the same people if they enjoy driving those automobiles on freshly paved (and plowed and sanded) roads or over safe bridges. The percentage of yes answers is likely the same.
Those are the two forces driving Question 2, one of seven referendum questions on the state ballot in November.
The question before voters reads: “Do you want to cut the rate of municipal excise tax by an average of 55 percent on motor vehicles less than six years old and exempt hybrid and other alternative-energy and highly fuel-efficient motor vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise tax?”
On the surface it’s simple, according to Yes on Two Chairman Chris Cinquemani. “Vote yes, pay less,” has been a familiar refrain at recent forums held around the state.
Promises of lower taxes appeal to voters like Tim Poitras of Caribou, but the broader impact leaves him skeptical.
“I personally don’t like paying more taxes,” Poitras told The Associated Press last week. But he’s concerned about the potential loss of local tax revenues that would result if Question 2 passes.
“If I had to vote today, I would probably vote against it.”
While it’s true, some Maine residents would see a reduction in excise taxes if Question 2 passes, far more — based on the age of their vehicles — would see no change.
Estimates from the Secretary of State’s Office suggest that more than two-thirds of all vehicles registered in Maine are more than five years old. So, in theory, Question 2 gives a break to those who can afford newer vehicles.
Cinquemani said he and other supporters are more than willing to cut excise taxes for everyone, but Question 2 is a start. He also said once the excise tax is lowered, more consumers might be willing to purchase newer vehicles.
The Maine Municipal Association, the most vocal opponent of Question 2, has been less concerned about motor vehicle sales trends than the crippling effect of lost revenue if excise taxes are reduced.
Municipal officials across the state have testified on numerous occasions that if Question 2 passes, their budgets would be significantly hampered. Sue Lessard, town manager in Hampden, said her town would lose about $600,000 annually.
“If we closed the library, the pool and the recreation center, that still wouldn’t cover it,” she said. “In my experience, there are very few people who want less, they just want it to cost less.”
Lessard said Hampden likely would have no choice but to raise property taxes to cover the losses, roughly $1.11 per $1,000 of property value.
The city of Bangor stands to lose $1.8 million in excise tax revenue if Question 2 passes, or the equivalent of 30 to 40 jobs, according to city officials who have opposed the measure. Statewide, an estimated $205 million in excise tax revenue would be lost.
Cinquemani, however, said municipalities are adopting a doom-and-gloom attitude when they talk about revenue reductions.
“They need to find efficiencies, which is what all of us are doing in our own households,” he said.
Of course, municipalities may not be able to shift the tax burden to properties if another referendum, Question 4, passes. That initiative, known as TABOR II, would require voter approval for any tax increases above certain limits.
“I’m a little nervous about government by referendum,” said Lessard.
Question 2 also would exempt hybrid and other alternative-energy vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise taxes. Opponents, who note that supporters rarely talk about that exemption, suggest it was merely a throw in to entice voters.
Supporters, who have launched a More Green Now campaign, say cleaner air and greater fuel efficiency will result if the measure is passed. Cinquemani explained the campaign’s name.
“If the green that you want is in your pocket, that’s what you’ll get,” he said. “If the green you want is cleaner air and energy efficiency, that’s what you’ll get, too.”
Maine’s automobile excise tax turned 80 years old this year. It has been amended only once, in 2001.
Cinquemani called it the state’s most-hated tax, although taxes of any kind are not exactly popular.
But excise taxes are a little different because not every state has them. It’s also among the only taxes that Mainers have to physically pay each year with a trip to their municipal office.
Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association said at a recent forum that he understands Mainers’ aversion to excise taxes, but he also said that governing by hatred is dangerous. Taxes pay for valuable services and while there might be inefficiencies in government spending, those efficiencies are less evident at the municipal level, which is where Question 2 would hurt the most.
For the full text of Question 2, visit the Maine Secretary of State’s Web site: www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/upcoming.html.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.