May 24, 2018
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Voting on tax hikes is abdicating leadership

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Several hundred people participated in a protest at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Bangor in 2009 against taxes and bailouts by the government.

One definition of leadership is the ability to persuade people to go where they don’t necessarily want to go. That sort of leadership gets soldiers to charge a hill into enemy fire, pushes a construction crew to finish a new building ahead of deadline and convinces a high school football team to work harder to defeat its opponent.

In the political realm, leadership means passing legislation that will be unpopular among a majority of voters; legislation that raises fees and taxes, or at least shifts them from one group to another is one example.

LD 1248, sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, would mandate that any tax hike or fee increase approved by the Legislature not go into affect until a majority of Maine voters approved it in a statewide referendum. The ballot question would include the amount of the tax or fee increase, its purpose, the amount of revenue it would raise, and how the money would be used.

It seems simple and sensible. Let those who will bear the tax or fee burden agree or disagree to its imposition. In fact, it recalls one of the principles that inspired Americans to throw off the British Empire’s yoke. Except for one key difference.

The cry of the original tea party in its Boston Harbor demonstration was “No taxation without representation.” The colonists had no say over the British government’s taxation policies. In the American system, we elect men and women to represent us, and hope they have the leadership mettle to approve tax and fee increases when the times call for them.

Sen. Thibodeau’s bill also has some serious practical implications. Among them are the lag time between a proposal to raise the fee for snowmobile registration or the scheduled increase to the gas tax and the vote. And statewide votes cost money.

More distressing is the likely outcome of such a system. Tax and fee hikes will be conceived by legislators to fall on a narrow group — hunters, truck drivers, lobstermen, lawyers, dentists, out-of-state property owners — so the majority of voters not affected will support the increases.

And would tax decreases be put before voters? The governor’s proposal to exempt up to $2 million in estates rather than the first $1 million has serious implications for many Maine residents who will lose out on the programs cut to provide this benefit. Will they have a say?

What about the governor’s plan to increase teacher contributions to their retirement pension? Isn’t this essentially a tax increase? Should citizens vote on it?

Voters often do not take the time to understand the components of a complex taxation plan. Consider the 124th Legislature’s plan to reduce the state income tax from 8.5 percent to 6.85 percent while “exporting” some of the tax burden to tourists. Expert analysis showed the vast majority of Mainers would pay less, but voters were easily persuaded by political rhetoric to defeat the measure at referendum.

Taken to an extreme, the philosophy behind LD 1248 would have voters give their thumbs up or down to every line item on the state budget. This is an abdication of leadership, not empowerment. LD 1248 ought to be defeated.

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