Tomorrow Mainers will go to the polls and make a decision that has the potential to create a dramatic effect on our government. You’ve probably heard about it – the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
The much-publicized referendum No. 1 reads: “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 debate about TABOR has been the hot topic of this election day, as it should be. Opponents argue that it has the potential to drastically hinder the services that our state and local governments provide, such as schools, medical care and emergency services. Proponents say: Enough is enough.
TABOR is a response to Maine’s economic slump. A recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston indicated that Maine was one of only two states in the nation that experienced an economic activity decline in the last year – the other state being Louisiana, who suffered due to Hurricane Katrina. Furthermore, it’s no secret that Maine has had the highest local and state tax burden in the country for the past nine years.
Maine taxpayers want answers. Despite all the doom and gloom that has been forecast about the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the polls reported in the Bangor Daily News on Friday indicate that 40 percent of Maine voters favor the referendum, and 10 percent are still undecided on how they will vote.
Indeed, TABOR seems like a logical answer to Maine’s high tax burden. When you are spending too much money, you need to make a budget and stick to it if you want to cut spending. Maine taxpayers want accountability from government administrators.
However, all TABOR will do is treat a symptom of the problem without addressing its cause. We must ask: Why are taxes so high for Maine citizens?
Last month, the Brookings Institution, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research organization, released the report “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places.” In it, the authors address several of the causes of Maine’s economic woes, naming a “pervasive pessimism” in the state and difficult challenges of high taxes, deindustrialization, sprawling development and lack of skilled workers.
However, they also state that Maine has shown strong population growth and a diversifying economy, with many innovative industries emerging. They cite several reasons why our economy is not improving.
First, suburbanization and low-density development has begun to dominate the rural landscape of Maine. In the past 20 years we have lost an area of rural land that is roughly the size of Rhode Island to development. The suburban sprawl has lead to an overwhelming strain on our local governments, who must build new schools and other services to meet the demands of new residents.
According to the report, families are moving out of town for lower property taxes and cheaper homes. Local regulations such as building codes and parking ordinances make redevelopment of older buildings cost-prohibitive. Furthermore, towns in Maine fail to collaborate with each other in zoning and land-use decisions, despite the fact that the economy is “quintessentially regional in nature,” with residents “living in one town, working in another, and recreating in still another.”
The second reason the authors of the report give is excessive government spending, not only on social benefits or high demands, but on bureaucracy. Maine is fourth-highest in the nation in an administrator-to-student ratio, and ninth-highest in the administrator to teacher ratio. The report argues that these expenses “crowd out” our ability to invest in programs that really matter.
The answer to Maine’s economic slump is not to simply cut government spending and taxes, but to take taxpayer money and commit it to investing in sustainable solutions which will build on our state’s strengths: our beautiful environment and our innovative economy. Moreover, Maine needs to shift more of the tax burden onto tourists and non-residents, who pay less in lodging tax here than in any other New England state and far less than in many other tourist destinations.
Regardless of its passage on Tuesday, our newly elected government officials should take the Taxpayer Bill of Rights’ message to heart: Maine’s taxes are too high and our economy is suffering. It is never too soon to start working together to promote smart development and streamline government services in order to fully realize our state’s potential.
Pattie Barry adds to our beautiful environment and innovative economy.