April 07, 2020

Good message, exhausted messenger

The kiss of death to Maine’s latest attempt to keep itself from spending so much was bestowed by the Portland Regional Chamber, from whose lips came support for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights with the condition that the Legislature cleanse the measure of “unintended or harmful outcomes.” Legislators will see that as an invitation to rewrite passages they don’t like, and that is the end of TABOR.

The Portland business group is like many others that want to send a message to lawmakers to cut taxes even as they recognize that TABOR isn’t exactly the message they want to send. The other day, television editorialist Fred Nutter of WCSH said, “We have listened closely to arguments from both sides and are convinced that TABOR is not perfect, but past legislatures have amended citizen initiatives to avoid unintended consequences and can do so again.” Those would be the legislatures that have failed utterly to pass anything like TABOR.

Republican Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, ranking member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said at a recent conference that he too supports the TABOR message, but that he is “committed to funding the third and fourth years of the school funding ramp.” It is technically possible to stay within spending limits while adding hundreds of millions of state dollars to school funding, as the ramp demands, but it is not likely, so either the TABOR limits would be overridden or ignored.

So many people want to use TABOR as a flawed message-sending device then fix it later that gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill recently announced her views on the proper TABOR-repair process – she would put the amendments back out to a public vote.

The Portland Chamber’s decision, however, is the most important because TABOR is of greatest benefit to southern Maine, land of the highest real-estate values and home of the largest contributors to the state coffer. If that region’s business leaders are uncertain about it, the rest of the state should worry.

Certainly, the cities of Brewer and Bangor, both of which opposed the initiative this week, have reason. “If TABOR passes,” said Bangor City Manager Ed Barrett, “the first thing we are going to do is go to court to try to figure out what it means.” He says, for instance, that because TABOR counts all funds to the city, it would demand that higher revenues from airport fees, due to increased use by the military, be offset with property tax breaks. But it’s not as if the federal government would allow Bangor International Airport to just transfer those fees to the city, so Bangor would quickly find itself in financial trouble.

All service centers would have an immediate additional problem because their budgets under TABOR could reflect only its resident population (plus inflation) and not the additional thousands of people who use their services during the day, no matter how much those populations rise and no matter how many demands they place on the cities. TABOR doesn’t count those people.

When city managers rush to court for clarification, however, they will find themselves in line behind the constitutionalists, who look at TABOR’s statutory requirement for the public’s permission to set tax rates and refer all who will listen to Article IX, section 9 of the Maine constitution, which says, “The Legislature shall never, in any manner, suspend or surrender the power of taxation.”

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, the prime supporter of Maine’s version of TABOR, takes a different view of what the constitution says, but found itself last June also trying to clarify what it meant by various provisions within TABOR. Even with the clarification, it had trouble counting school administrative units that would be affected by enrollment rules.

But say that definition is patched up by the Legislature. After the business leaders get through urging the removal from TABOR all that is unintended and harmful, after the schools got funded and municipalities shed unworkable rules, after the lawyers were done picking over the bones of the bill’s constitutional assumptions, what’s left?

That is the easiest of all TABOR questions. What’s left is another year of legislative fighting, the absence of direction for development and certainly even more frustration for taxpayers. (Compare this with the growing support for a more positive view of Maine in the new Brookings report, which urges the state to cut taxes and split the savings between tax reductions and supporting new industries and struggling towns. Anyone looking for an alternative to TABOR has one in this report, called “Charting Maine’s Future.”)

My sympathies are with TABOR supporters because they are right when they see Maine’s tax levels harming the state’s future. But those supporters should also see that through TABOR’s own inadequacies and through accumulated political decisions, the measure would be too weak to be effective.

What remains in doubt now is whether Maine is going to spend another year arguing about it or adopt something better.

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.

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