BANGOR, Maine — Members of Maine’s medical community held a media blitz Monday with stops in Bangor and Portland to broadcast their opposition to Question 1.
That’s the initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot that would repeal a new beverage tax that aims to help pay for and expand the DirigoChoice insurance programs.
“We are certainly in very difficult economic times right now,” Dr. Stephanie Lash, president of the Maine Medical Association, said at a “No on One” press conference at the office of Neurology Associates of Eastern Maine.
“But one of the best investments we can make to keep the state strong and vibrant is, literally, to keep the state healthy,” Lash said.
The MMA is one of more than 30 organizations opposing the ballot initiative. Other opponents include AARP, the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine AFL-CIO.
The coalition also officially debuted its first ad Monday.
Under the initiative, a new excise tax for certain beverages would be levied on distributors. According to a Maine State Chamber of Commerce analysis, the new taxes on beer, wine, soda and other beverages would raise about $17 million in the 2009 fiscal year.
The beer tax would jump from 25 cents a gallon to 54 cents, which works out to a total of 30 cents on a six-pack. The wine tax would more than double, jumping from 30 cents a gallon to 65 cents. Soda, now untaxed, would be taxed at 42 cents a gallon and simple syrup, also now untaxed, would be taxed at $4 a gallon.
Question 1 opponents said this tax would translate to the consumer as a penny more for a glass of wine, three more pennies for a bottle of beer and four pennies for a can of soda.
“The pennies we are talking about mean real, quality health care for vulnerable people in Maine,” said Juliana L’Heureux, executive director of the Maine Association of Mental Health Services.
The tax would replace the unpredictable Savings Offset Payment as a funding source for DirigoChoice, which has a roughly $50 million annual operating budget and serves 18,000 individuals and small businesses.
The savings offset is based on an annual assessment of cost savings in the health care system due to the Dirigo health reforms. In addition to the DirigoChoice program, the Dirigo reforms include regulatory and voluntary initiatives to hold down health care spending.
Even though Question 1 opponents couch the new tax as money that Maine can’t afford not to spend, those who support it have a different fiscal reckoning.
“Maine families are struggling financially with this economy with the cost of heating oil and gasoline and milk,” said Leslie Thistle, the owner of Bangor Wine & Cheese, Cafe Nouveau, and also one of the initiative’s original proponents. “This is absolutely the worst time to be asking people to pay another tax.”
Newell Augur, a Brunswick lawyer, is chairman of Fed Up With Taxes, the political action committee behind Question 1.
According to Augur, the beverage tax would amount to $40 million a year — more than double the estimate by the No on One coalition.
“Our opponents have consistently been hiding the real impact of this tax on Maine people,” Augur said.
A University of Maine economist commissioned by Fed Up With Taxes has figured that the tax would cause $40 million in lost sales and nearly 400 lost jobs.
Augur argued that DirigoChoice and other programs are simply not worth another tax.
“The real problem is that promises made to Maine people about Dirigo have not come true,” he said. “Essentially, we’re throwing good money after bad.”