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Sunday, May 11, 9:39 a.m.
Opinion

Op-Ed: Lower excise tax a bad road for Maine

Every Mainer knows how bad the state’s roads are. Potholes are more abundant than weeds and cigarette butts; patchwork has become more commonplace than full-on repair; and in conversation shoulders are only mentioned as a part of the body. So with that in mind, why do some Mainers want to make roads worse?

The state’s roads barely get enough money to be repaired these days, and yet a voter referendum initiative on November’s ballot aims to do away with a good chunk of the revenue that funds those repairs.

With TABOR II, the referendum on gay marriage and another on legalizing marijuana, there is one other voter initiative that seems to have gotten lost in the debate: the excise tax. The citizen initiative on this year’s ballot would decrease the tax amount some vehicle owners pay when registering their vehicles.

The official ballot question states, “Do you want to cut the rate of the municipal excise tax by an average of 55 percent on motor vehicles less than six years old and exempt hybrid and other alternative-energy and highly fuel efficient motor vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise tax?”

Fifty-five percent? That’s crazy. According to Catherine Conlow, Orono’s town manager, the lack of an excise tax would cost the University of Maine’s hometown $260,504 each year. Old Town would lose $509,241 per year. That’s thousands of dollars that’s not going to road repair, because the excise tax is slated specifically for public road maintenance. Orono’s mil rate, the number it uses to figure out what level to set property taxes, would rise by 0.62 percent.

Proponents of the initiative say it will offer approximately $80 million in tax relief, but towns like Orono will be forced to raise property taxes without the added revenue in order to make up the difference. Do people just not know how to do math these days?

The money for road repair has to come from somewhere, and if it’s not coming from the excise tax, it’s coming from the property taxes. Maine already has some of the highest property taxes in the United States. According to The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group based in Washington, D.C., Maine’s property taxes in 2006 made up 38.08 percent of its total tax revenue. The national average was 30.04 percent.

Do Mainers want to make it to 40 percent or more? It’s doubtful.

Orono’s road maintenance budget is more than $1 million, so obviously it doesn’t get all of its money from the excise tax. The same can probably be said of other state towns and cities, but even being a portion of that budget, the revenue the excise tax brings in is still a large chunk of financial support. Proponents argue towns’ road maintenance budgets are often less than their excise tax revenue, an argument Orono doesn’t lend itself to – its budget is greater than its excise tax revenue.

The excise doesn’t just pay for roads either. Technically it is set aside for “public works” projects, which can include other publicly used items the town maintains.

Orono’s town council plans to hold a public information session Oct. 19 about both the excise tax initiative and TABOR II, to inform people about how both will impact the town and the state. People should attend so they can make an informed decision this November.

People are sick of taxes, but they’ve forgotten how much good taxes do for them. The state government is not a bunch of evil, pot-bellied, cigar-chomping politicians who laugh maniacally whenever taxes are filed. They are a group of public servants who try their best to meet the needs of the people as a whole, and as individuals — goals that can sometimes clash, but often times complement each other.

Vote down the excise tax citizen initiative this November, and do yourself and your car a favor.

Dylan Riley is news editor for The Maine Campus.