Taxpayer initiative sees reprise

Posted April 16, 2009, at 9:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — For the second time in three years, Maine lawmakers and the general public are debating a citizen initiative to let voters approve or reject tax increases.

Besides taxes, the initiative would require voter approval for state spending to exceed the rates of inflation and population growth and for local property taxes to grow faster than personal income.

“It should be a right. Period,” Sen. Douglas Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, said at a taxation committee hearing Thursday.

The Legislature could enact the initiative into law, but instead is expected to send it on to voters in November.

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Gov. John Baldacci did not send a representative to the hearing. But in an interview with The Associated Press, he said he opposes the new measure for the same reasons he opposed a broader proposal in 2006.

“Too extreme,” Baldacci said.

The governor noted that spending caps currently exist on state government, counties and local governments, and said the state budget was already smaller than the previous budget and would be pared back even further.

Unwilling to concede that the bill would fail in the Legislature, anti-tax activist Mary Adams of Garland arrived brandishing a mock pitchfork and urged the committee to support the measure and build momentum for its passage in the House and Senate.

“People are demanding accountability and control over government spending. They want ‘in’ when it comes to their money,” she said in prepared remarks. “The Taxpayer Bill of Rights almost passed with 46 percent of the vote three years ago, and there has been a sea change in public attitude since then.”

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Portland, wrote the Act to Provide Tax Relief, which supporters say differs from the 2006 proposal in two key ways. They say the new proposal would require a majority vote of the Legislature to send a tax increase proposal to voters instead of a two-thirds vote. A second change, taking note of a 2007 law mandating that all school budgets have voter approval, removes school budgets from the initiative’s provisions.

Tarren Bragdon, chief of Maine Heritage Policy Center, recalled that last November statewide voters backed a people’s veto referendum question to scrap newly enacted beverage taxes.

“Clearly, Maine people like voting on state tax increases — and sometimes have different priorities than a majority of the Legislature,” Bragdon said.

Geoff Herman, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association, said the group opposes the proposal, predicting it would undercut home rule and local decision-making.

“In other words, state law is dictating exactly how local legislative bodies may make certain decisions,” he said in prepared testimony.

Herman also warned that the proposed law would hamstring the state’s ability to catch up with financial commitments to local governments once the current economic downturn eases.

The spending cap formulas are likely to be a secondary issue.

Committee Chairman Thomas Watson, D-Bath, said the proposed spending limits were less stringent than those now in place.

Sponsors have launched a campaign Web site, www.tabornow.com, for the measure, and opponents are expected to formalize a counter-effort to defeat it.

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