Waterville used to be a town just about like every other town in Maine. Yes, a couple of our elected officials served time or got into legal hassles, and yes, we suffered more from industrial job loss than most cities in Maine, but things went along as usual most years, and taxes rose every year.
In Maine, local spending fueled by property tax increases has risen 58 percent since 2000 and Waterville used to be no exception. Taxes rose in Waterville more than 20 percent from 2000 to 2003. A lot of Maine towns have seen double digit increases in spending over the last eight years. Many people believe nothing can be done about this.
I know that something can be done, because since I became mayor of Waterville in 2003, taxes have declined (yes, gone down) 13 percent. Services were not cut. Capital spending increased. Cash reserves went up 670 percent. Our bond rating improved from an A- to an A+. There was no revaluation. So over the last eight years, when average property taxes were rising 58 percent in Maine, taxes in Waterville went down 9 percent.
How did this happen? It happened because I was willing to be unpopular.
Those who claim we do not need TABOR to restrain spending could point to me as an example of why we do not need TABOR. If you just elect the right local officials, spending can be restrained. But that is not true. Nobody wants to serve in public office in order to be hated. Nearly everyone who shows up at the meetings is there to demand more spending. Not a single elected official in Bangor spoke in defense of the taxpayers when it came time to debate TABOR, and who can blame them? There were more than 100 people in the room dedicated to more spending and they made it clear that anyone who voted for TABOR would face their wrath at the polls.
The system is skewed in favor of the special interest groups that want more spending from Augusta right down to every local community. Those who oppose TABOR do not represent the hardworking people of Maine. They are special interest groups such as the Maine Municipal Association that get their revenue stream off the backs of Maine taxpayers. They will outspend the supporters of TABOR this year by 5-1 (and some of that money is your tax dollars) and their efforts are organized to protect their lifestyle. They truly have no passion for the prosperous future of our state.
Some naysayers think Maine’s position is hopeless and that we cannot turn this state around. They are wrong. There is actually precedent for reform, right here in New England. When the Citizen’s Initiative Prop 2½ passed with 60 percent of the vote in 1980, Massachusetts had the highest per capita tax burden in the U.S. From that point on, citizens got to vote on tax increases above a certain rate. That measure, plus a conservative Democrat House speaker working with three consecutive GOP governors, reduced spending and taxes to the point where Massachusetts was 28th in taxes. This took 20 years of hard work.
If TABOR passes with a substantial margin and a new Republican governor takes office in 2011, and has my kind of backbone, we will prosper.
We need a new mechanism to give the taxpayers a direct say in how much government should spend. Is TABOR perfect? No. TABOR only allows a vote of the residents when spending increases sharply. We need to reduce taxes and spending, but TABOR is a long overdue start.
Voting Yes on 4 does not cut spending, but it might limit future spending increases, depending on what the voters choose. There is absolutely no reason not to vote yes.
Paul R. LePage is the mayor of Waterville and a Republican candidate for governor.