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We’ve spurned spending limits, rejected tax increases: With tax votes in Maine, it’s complicated

George Danby
Posted Feb. 13, 2014, at 12:39 p.m.

The moment Gov. Paul LePage mentioned a tax relief initiative in his State of the State address last week, asking the Legislature to allow the people of Maine to vote on it, liberals went on the attack.

Knowing little about LePage’s proposal for a referendum asking voters if they want a $100 million tax cut in exchange for a commensurate state spending cut, they immediately dubbed it TABOR III, merely because it would reduce taxes and limit state spending. They were referring, of course, to the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, which sought to limit spending growth and require voter approval of tax increases. But since TABOR didn’t actually cut taxes and would have limited growth in spending for local governments as well as the state, this is an intellectually dishonest comparison at best and a purposefully misleading one at worst. Democrats would have you believe that any attempt to reduce taxes or limit spending is a rehash of TABOR, which you voted down twice, so why bother to vote on it again?

TABOR did fail twice. Its margin of defeat only grew the second time around, when it got just 39 percent of the vote. Also on the ballot in 2009 was an attempt to reduce the local excise tax, which failed by an even wider margin, barely receiving 25 percent of the vote.

That’s hardly the complete history of tax referendums in Maine, however — though Democrats can certainly be forgiven for wanting to banish memory of the others. The truth is that if Maine voters as a whole had a Facebook relationship status with tax initiatives, it would be, “It’s Complicated.”

In 2008, Gov. John Baldacci decided to fund his floundering Dirigo Health initiative by raising the sales taxes on soda, wine and beer. In so doing, Baldacci transformed one of his signature accomplishments as governor into a fight over taxes. A larger portion of voters ended up voting against his tax hikes than voted against TABOR. Democrats similarly lost overwhelmingly just two years later, as Mainers voted down their attempt to dramatically expand the sales tax in a complex tax “reform” scheme.

Both times, the people of Maine decided by a double-digit margin that they didn’t want any new taxes. Indeed, every time Maine voters have had the chance to vote on tax increases in recent years, they’ve voted against them. Attempts to raise taxes failed just as dramatically as previous attempts to limit taxes.

So, I have a simple question for the Democrats who have found such sudden, selective reverence for the results of the citizen initiative and referendum process: Where was that attitude last year, when you raised the sales tax?

By doing so, the Legislature was directly contravening the twice-expressed will of the people, wasn’t it? The truth is that Democrats have remained committed to their tax-increase agenda, no matter how many times the people of Maine tell them otherwise.

In fact, they’ve not only ignored the outcomes of these battles, they’ve tried to limit the citizen initiative process as a whole. In 2010, after seeing their tax shift scheme go up in smoke, Democratic leadership floated a bill to severely limit signature gathering. The legislation was so onerous that it was quietly killed in committee, but it reflected their true attitude toward the citizen initiative and referendum process.

The governor’s proposal to take a tax relief fight directly to the people is a wise one, as there’s reason to believe such an approach would be successful. Mainers have not had a chance to vote on such a plan recently. Instead, we have been voting on ideas to limit future growth of government — an entirely different discussion. It’s impossible to say how a detailed, well-argued proposal to cut state spending and taxes would play at the ballot box. However, simply dismissing the idea before we even know what’s in it is irresponsible.

Of course, Democrats are seeking to dismiss the proposal in the public mind because that will be their approach in the Legislature as well. Any attempt to reduce taxes or limit spending — even just giving Mainers the chance to vote on it — will run into a stonewall of partisan opposition in Augusta.

Rather than just killing this proposal, Democrats should give the governor’s proposal a fair hearing. They should examine the details, offer amendments, and send it through the legislative process.

They owe it to Maine taxpayers to at least give this idea a chance.

Jim Fossel, an Alna native, has worked for Sen. Susan Collins and Maine House Republican Leader Josh Tardy. He has volunteered on numerous campaigns, including Peter Mills’ 2006 campaign for governor, and is chair of the Maine Federation of Young Republicans.

 

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