Next November, Maine voters will have another chance to rewrite their tax bills, just as they did on Nov. 4 by repealing the DirigoChoice beverage tax. Thanks to the efforts of conservative groups Maine Heritage Policy Center and Maine Leads, two initiatives will be on the November 2009 ballot that would, if approved, roll back or limit taxes. One referendum question seeks to cut vehicle excise taxes in half. Another would establish a revised Taxpayer Bill of Rights, giving voters final say over all state tax increases, while also limiting municipal and county spending. A third referendum would allow Mainers to buy health insurance from companies in the other New England, which is now prohibited by state law.
The ballot box is the bullhorn of the people, and elected officials ignore or dismiss it at their peril. But at some point, legislating by referendum is not practical and could begin to undermine the representative nature of our government.
Putting a complex matter before voters in a “yes” or “no” format brings the risk of unintended consequences. The Oxford County casino referendum, had it passed, would have enacted a lengthy piece of legislation that included some odd provisions, such as mandating that the casino’s CEO serve on the board of directors of organizations receiving some of the gambling proceeds. Some of the recipients were state agencies, which could have created a potential constitutional dilemma.
And it’s happened before. In 1991, voters approved a referendum that stopped a plan to widen the Maine Turnpike. But in voting to stop that project, they also enacted legislation that created a process through which major transportation projects had to be reviewed by local citizen committees. Department of Transportation officials have said privately that the new process has sometimes added hundreds of thousands of dollars to projects to appease local aesthetic concerns.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center and Maine Leads are sincere in their efforts to give Mainers “an opportunity to advance the real changes that politicians have failed to make,” as Heritage CEO Tarren Bragdon puts it. But the reality is that state government has been fiscally restrained over the last several years, and tax increases have been avoided.
In the last 10 years, the Legislature and governor have lowered the sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent; eliminated the snack tax, which generated $15 million a year; increased funding to local schools by more than $800 million; and created a $6,000 exemption for military and other public and private pensions reduced by Social Security benefits.
“We believe Mainers should have a greater say in how their government operates, and that is exactly what these three initiatives accomplish,” Mr. Bragdon said. A better way to have that say should come in electing good legislators, watching their work and speaking out when they stray from sound fiscal policy. Though the “pure democracy” nature of our town meeting heritage is important, the representative form of government envisioned by the Founding Fathers works well, especially in complex matters of how the tax burden is apportioned.