Do you want to limit increases in state and local government spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth and to require voter approval for all tax and fee increases?
The way Mary Adams sees it, her Taxpayer Bill of Rights is a long overdue remedy for runaway government spending.
To its foes, TABOR – as it has become known – is a recipe for deep budget cuts in education and public safety that puts the power of the purse into the hands of a legislative minority.
There is little if any common ground in the increasingly rancorous public debate over Question 1, which, if passed by voters on Nov. 7, would limit increases in state and local government spending based on inflation and population growth. Additionally, voters would have to approve any tax or fee increases.
“This isn’t about anything other than whether the power will rest with the taxpayer or with the people in Augusta who tax at will,” said Adams, the anti-tax activist from Garland spearheading the pro-TABOR campaign.
“The enemies will tell you your teeth are going to rot and your hair is going to fall out if it passes,” said Adams, disgusted by what she considers opponents’ misleading claims about the plan. “They are absolutely unscrupulous … and as far as I’m concerned we can sweep them right out of the state.”
At or near the top of Adams’ list of potential exiles would likely be Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for the anti-TABOR group Citizens United. The group, which helped engineer the defeat of the 2004 Palesky property tax cap, has launched a major television advertising campaign in hopes of cutting into TABOR’s popularity, which reached as high as 71 percent in some early polls.
Adams, Bailey and the other major players in the TABOR campaign have spent the past month bouncing from Rotary Club breakfast to call-in radio show to cable access program debating the plan’s merits.
Local control, Bailey said, will be the first and most fundamental casualty of Adams’ initiative should it pass.
“This goes to the heart of the local budget process and takes the power right out of their hands,” he said.
Taking off the cap
It is true that a town government would have to live by TABOR’s stringent rules should it become state law. But there is a way for voters to temporarily override the spending caps, using a two-step process.
First, two-thirds of a legislative body must agree to override the caps for a specific reason. Then, a majority of voters in that jurisdiction must approve at the next general or special election.
For instance, if the Bangor City Council wants to spend $200,000 more than the caps allow to buy a new fire engine, six of the nine members must agree. Then, a majority of Bangor voters would have to favor the specific proposal at referendum.
In smaller towns, where budgets are approved at town meeting, two-thirds of those present could vote to start the override process. Then, as in the previous case, a majority of voters would have to approve the increase in spending at the next election.
“It’s the definition of local control,” a frustrated Adams said this week. “How can they say there’s no local control?”
But the true control, opponents argue, would rest with the minority of those in the Legislature or city council. In Bangor’s case, four of the nine city councilors could prevent a public vote on the hypothetical fire engine.
That runs afoul of a long tradition of majority rule, said Bailey, predicting that TABOR’s two-thirds requirement – and its subsequent majority vote – would cause government gridlock at all levels.
“A two-thirds vote to decide what time it is would be difficult for some town councils,” he said.
But it shouldn’t be easy to override the spending limits or approve new taxes and fees, say TABOR’s supporters.
“When you have some of the highest taxes in the nation, from our perspective, having a higher standard is not an unreasonable request,” said Roy Lenardson, a TABOR campaign official and former associate of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the conservative think tank that wrote the bill.
To be clear, even without the overrides, government spending can increase under TABOR’s formula, which allows for changes in inflation and population.
Back in Bangor, school officials calculate that their budget would have been allowed to increase roughly 3 percent under TABOR this fiscal year. In actuality, it increased 4.6 percent. That means the city’s schools – barring votes to override the caps – would have had to cut roughly $630,000, thus eliminating most extracurricular activities, according to a memo from the superintendent of schools.
“Under TABOR, mediocrity is inevitable,” superintendent Robert Ervin wrote in a memo this month, outlining the potential cuts. “Like a boa constrictor, TABOR will slowly squeeze academic excellence from the Bangor school department.”
North, south and west
Maine’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights is based largely on that of Colorado, which added the revenue limits to its state constitution in 1992.
In 2005, voters in Colorado suspended TABOR’s formula for five years, providing state government with extra revenue to avoid looming cuts in the state’s Medicaid and education budgets. That 2005 vote did not suspend the requirement that voters sign off on any tax or fee increases.
While TABOR opponents say the suspension is proof of the tax plan’s failure, Adams says just the opposite.
“It’s proof that it works,” said Adams. “Government had to come begging to taxpayers, and the taxpayers answered.”
Colorado’s Republican Gov. Bill Owens, although he supported the suspension, called TABOR “a tremendous success” in his state in a recent television ad for Adams’ Maine campaign.
But as in Maine, it’s not difficult to find detractors in TABOR’s home state of Colorado. And this week, one didn’t even have to leave Bangor to do so.
After addressing the Bangor Rotary Club breakfast Thursday, Colorado state Sen. Steve Johnson, a Republican, said Mainers would be wise to consider TABOR’s track record in Colorado before casting their votes.
“This locked in a formula that doesn’t work,” said Johnson, pointing to specific cuts in higher education and drug abuse prevention. “It forces government to cut things people care about every single year.”
Whether the Maine version of TABOR would ever require towns to cut their budgets remains the subject of debate, with legal opinions on both sides.
Supporters say TABOR, in a worst-case scenario, would allow a town to flat-fund its budget even if its population declined dramatically. Opponents say the bill’s language says nothing about flat-funding and that its formula could result in actual cuts, particularly in rural northern Maine towns, where populations are stagnant or dropping.
Supporters acknowledge that the bill, like many pieces of legislation, would need to be “tweaked” by the next Legislature and likely merged with LD 1, an existing law designed to reduce property taxes.
“We want to make this work,” Lenardson said.
But Bailey said the bill is fundamentally flawed, and voters can’t just approve it in hopes that the Legislature will fix it. Moreover, he said, it’s just a bad idea.
“There are some serious unintended consequences,” said Bailey, pointing to marked declines in education funding and teacher pay in Colorado since TABOR’s passage there.
Even if TABOR does pass in Maine, serious questions remain about whether the new law would be constitutional, with Maine’s attorney general, G. Steven Rowe, already opining that it would not. Only a constitutional amendment, he said, could bind the Legislature to surrender its authority to tax.
Although the measure’s constitutionality remains in doubt, Election Day is nonetheless approaching. While recent polls suggest the contest is tightening, Adams said she doesn’t need any polls to tell her how Mainers feel about taxes.
“I can see it in the eyes of people at the local levels that they’re going to make it stick this time,” she said.
A link to the full text of the bill can be found at www.bangodailynews.com as part of its Election 2006 coverage.