April 21, 2019
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Should Maine voters be setting tax policy?

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters could again be asked to help set government policy on spending and taxes if a political action committee is successful in putting a new initiative on the ballot.

Later this spring, the group Maine Taxpayers United plans to begin gathering the more than 57,000 signatures needed to force a citizens’ initiative that could change the way state budgets are crafted.

Instead of using the current baseline budget process which takes last year’s budget and adds or subtracts from it, the group wants to require future Legislatures to adopt “priority-based budgeting.”

Scott Lansley, a former Republican state legislator and now political director for the conservative Maine Taxpayers United PAC, said he appreciates what Gov. Paul LePage has done to rein in spending so far during his administration, including adopting zero-based budgeting practices.

But this citizens’ initiative would create a mandate that exists even after LePage leaves office. It would ask the Legislature every two years to determine the core functions of government with help from a newly created citizen/legislative board and then draft a budget.

“Budgets are created on wants rather than needs,” Lansley said on Monday. “When you take a look at all the different departments in state government, they are not looking at the spending side. In order to reduce taxes, you have to cut spending.”

Maine Taxpayers United announced the citizens’ initiative last week during a rally in Lewiston that was attended by LePage and Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Lansley said the group has worked with ALEC on language for the citizens’ initiative, versions of which are being pushed in other states.

ALEC, a national group funded largely by major corporations, drafts model legislation for state legislatures that usually is rooted in pro-business or socially conservative ideology. Nearly all members are Republicans.

Garrett Martin, executive director of the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, said the Maine Taxpayers United initiative sounds good to people who think taxes are too high.

“Just cutting spending and taxes is not a balanced discussion,” he said.

Martin said what is happening in Maine is part of a national movement to shrink government so that it’s “small enough to drown in a bathtub.”

“I don’t think that will go away, but I do think we need to have a robust and productive conversation [about taxes and spending],” he said, acknowledging the difficulty of that prospect in today’s polarized political environment.

Martin also said he’s not convinced Maine’s spending is out of control. When adjusted for inflation, the current state budget is actually lower than in 1998, he said.

Even though the signature-gathering process has not started, some already are comparing the Maine Taxpayers United push to other tax-and-spend initiatives that have tried and failed over the years. In 2006 and again in 2009, voters rejected Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiatives that would have required voter approval of any tax increases and would have limited government growth to the inflation rate or lower.

Martin wondered whether everyday Mainers are best suited to set complicated policies.

“At the end of the day, [lawmakers] have more information at their disposal and a better understanding of the tradeoffs,” he said. “The choice at the ballot box is often a false choice.”

Lansley agreed that, in an ideal world, the Legislature would set responsible policy. If lawmakers don’t, though, he said it’s the voters’ responsibility to avail themselves of the citizens’ initiative process.

The latest effort could have a big ally in Augusta: LePage has been consistent and vigilant in his goal to shrink government and reduce taxes. During the tax rally last week, LePage once again went after lawmakers for not doing enough.

“They will criticize. They will complain. And they will sit on their hands — which they have done for two years — without offering one item that would help bring the per-capita income up to 100 percent [of the national average],” he said. “It’s tough being governor. Not only do you have to listen to this all the time, but you have to sit in oversight of the largest adult day care in the state of Maine.”

Lansley said Maine Taxpayers United’s signature gathering officially will begin on June 12, when polls across Maine are open for primary elections. If enough signatures are gathered, a question would likely be posed to voters in 2013.

Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.

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