PRESQUE ISLE – Attendance was light at a Taxpayer Bill of Rights debate Wednesday night where speakers on both sides of the referendum question predicted gloom and doom whether the question passes muster with Maine voters or not next month.
Proponents maintained Maine is in “dire straits” because of its spending and taxing ways and the end is near if TABOR is not passed by voters.
On the other hand, opponents claimed passage of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights will “strangle” public interests in Maine and “curtail” programs. Opponents said it was “dangerous and poorly” designed.
The 75-minute debate at the University of Maine at Presque Isle was sponsored by UMPI and the Aroostook Municipal Association.
Proponents of TABOR were Roger D. Thibodeau, a retired businessman, and Jim Cyr, a social worker, both from central Aroostook County. Opponents of the proposal were Ryan Pelletier, St. Agatha town manager, and Roger Shaw, superintendent of schools in SAD 42 at Mars Hill.
Several times during the discussion, Cyr and Thibodeau told people that TABOR is not about cutting government budgets but about controlling future fiscal moves of government from the local to the state level.
“There is not much to it,” Cyr said at one point. “It allows growth in budgets according to the rate of inflation and population increases.
“It’s an important, dynamic piece of legislation to put the state back on the right track,” he said. “That’s why people in government and in teaching are frightened to death of it.”
Shaw agreed with Cyr and Thibodeau that the state may be in dire straits.
“I am a fiscal conservative, but TABOR is a cumbersome piece of legislation,” Shaw said. “It would be a handicap for us to operate with.
“Services would have to be cut in schools when emergencies would rise,” he said. “Things like special education costs cannot be put to a vote.”
“It’s radical, and not a sensible proposal,” Pelletier, who is president of the Maine Municipal Association, said. “It doesn’t make sense.
“It requires two-thirds action by town councils, and then municipal referendums,” he said. “Referendums are costly.”
Thibodeau claims that government administrators have been running rampant for 30 years or more.
“If town councilors can’t see down the road one year, then they should be replaced,” he said of town officials not foreseeing emergencies. “This is telling government to live within its means.
“Even with TABOR, it will take the state 15 years to get back to the middle of pack in spending,” Thibodeau said.
One part of TABOR that received a lot of attention Wednesday night was the “supermajority” vote on spending. Town officials, for example, would need a two-thirds majority amongst themselves to even bring a budget increase to voters.
Voters, in referendum, would need a majority to pass a spending measure.
Pelletier and Shaw maintained that all kinds of emergencies could often spur the call for municipal and school district referendums. They claimed that spikes in fuel and gasoline, the migration of a special needs child into a school district, or the breaking down of a piece of machinery could all spur referendums.
Cyr and Thibodeau, on the other hand, said it all came down to planning and fiscal management.
There was even disagreement on what is happening now in Colorado, where a Taxpayer Bill of Rights has been in place for years. Recently Colorado voted to suspend TABOR. Debate participants disagreed on whether TABOR is still ongoing in Colorado.
Cyr raised Shaw’s hackles when he talked of people in government who have been spending money “like drunken sailors at a house of ill repute.”
Thibodeau, who maintained that the city of Presque Isle increased its budget by more than 30 percent over the cost of living in the last four years, said that all that TABOR’s backers are asking is that towns and cities “hold the damn line.”
Shaw and Pelletier bemoaned the loss of local control.
Cyr and Thibodeau claimed TABOR is needed to bring the fiscal house back in order.
Discussion could have continued through the night, especially when questions were asked from the audience. The debate was cut off after 75 minutes, as promised.