The dangers of TABOR II for Maine was the topic of a forum at the University of Maine yesterday, where six panelists explained why they believe Question 4 on the Nov. 3 ballot will mean reduced state services and increased fees for all Mainers and have a debilitating effect on the state’s economy.
The basic problem the panelists cited in TABOR II was its formula, which they said caps state tax spending using population growth plus inflation rates as the basis for the limit.
“The biggest thing that TABOR does is it changes the way that local decisions are made regarding taxes and budgets. Municipal, local governments, they’re just really the purest form of government that we have. It’s a board of three to nine neighbors. It’s a direct link to you as a resident of your town. These things are a direct, local control and TABOR II will take that away,” said Michelle Beal, Ellsworth’s town manager, and one of the panelists.
Another problem the panelists said was present in TABOR II is its requirement for voter referendums. TABOR II requires the state and towns to approve taxes that exceed the formula limit through voter decision, which the panelists said would be too costly to be realistic.
“Referendums are very, very expensive. The city of Ellsworth … we have about 6,000 residents that can vote, and it costs us about $5,000 every time we want to hold an election,” Beal said. “And these special elections are never well attended. The last mandated RSU election that we had to have, we had 46 people show up to vote. $5,000 spent for 46 people to vote.”
The panelists also cited Colorado several times throughout the forum as an example of the dangers of TABOR II. Colorado is the only state in the United States that has passed a TABOR initiative.
“Under TABOR in Colorado … the percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care declined from being 23rd in the country to 48th. Colorado plummeted from 24th in the nation to 50th — the absolute last — in terms of the share of children receiving full immunizations,” said Sandy Butler, a professor from the UMaine School of Social Work. “It does not allow strategic decision-making to put money where it’s needed.”
Marie Frizzell, vice president of the Student Education Association of Maine’s Orono chapter and one of the panelists, said Colorado is now 49th among U.S. states in terms of kindergarten through grade 12 education funding, and ranks last in sending low-income students to college. She said Colorado cut 50 percent of its higher education budget.
“The schools could not afford to build new buildings,” Frizzell said. She said TABOR II would end up “dropping Maine to the bottom of the list as far as education is concerned.”
“You may have heard proponents say, ‘Oh, but Colorado’s a rich place.’ Yes indeed, Colorado’s different from Maine. They’ve got oil, gas, gold, silver, uranium, and they’ve had population growth for 100 years prior to TABOR — has nothing to do with TABOR,” said Christopher St. John, the executive director for the Maine Center for Economic Policy and one of the panelists. “And the formula of limiting state spending includes population growth. Well, if you have a high-growth state, as Colorado does, the formula doesn’t limit, constrain as much. Whereas Maine, of course you’ve noticed, has slow growth in population so it would be much more limiting and more damaging in Maine than it has been in Colorado.”
St. John said Colorado’s business community led the campaign to suspend TABOR, which he said the state did in 2005, and spent $9 billion advocating for an end to TABOR.
“More fundamentally, the timing of introducing this proposal now is the worst possible time,” St. John said. “We all know the people in Maine are experiencing a challenge. Eight and a half percent unemployment and many people anxious about losing their jobs, ordinary incomes have not [been] going up for years, and therefore people naturally are looking for ways to lower their household expenses. But TABOR doesn’t do that.”
Maine voters turned down a TABOR initiative in 2005. Out of the 26 states that have voted on TABOR initiatives, Colorado is the only one to have adopted it.
“I would look to the proponents of TABOR, proponents that I would argue have much and seem to want more,” said John Hanson, executive director of the Maine Building and Construction Trades Council and a panelist. “They do not need the public services that workers needed when they were being educated and relied on public education to get their knowledge, their information, their education, their skills and their training. And now they have families, and once again they find that they rely on solid public education; and more than that, rely on the services that our state and our communities provide to them.”
“Many of them [proponents] have earned their lifetime earnings from other places and come here now. Their children having grown up and are away working in other places. And they say, ‘We have no children in school, and we find that an abomination that we should have to pay for education when we’ve already educated our children,’” Hanson said.
Ron Green, president of the Bangor Firefighters’ Association, asked whether TABOR II would eliminate the death benefit given to the families of firefighters who die in the line of duty.
“The purpose of TABOR is to restrict what the state can spend money on,” St. John replied. “Yeah, in theory they could find money some place else, but the proposal itself restricts what other sources of money are going to be available. … There have been actual cuts already, so for them [proponents] to blatantly say, ‘Oh, that death benefit, that can be paid from someplace else,’ I think is a little bit disingenuous.”
St. John said TABOR II would affect dozens of special revenue items, including Black Bear Scholarships, which he offered as one example. He said the scholarships are funded by racino revenues, which TABOR II does not permit.
“If you take a 10-year period from 2001 to 2011 for those, and you look for the average rate of increase, it’s less than 1 percent a year growth. This is not growth out of control, so it’s a solution chasing a problem that doesn’t exist, No. 1, and in trying to solve the problem that doesn’t exist, it creates a lot of other problems,” St. John said.
One question, asked anonymously on a note card, asked how Maine’s tax burden compared with other states.
“For years we’ve heard the Tax Foundation cited as the best source for this information, and for some years they had us at No. 1, and other years they had us at No. 2 for tax burden,” St. John said. “But this past year, they went back and revised their numbers, and they said, ‘Whoops, we made a mistake. Maine’s at least No. 15.’”
St. John said Maine’s tax burden differs depending on how you measure it. He said when comparing income taxes with other states, Maine is about 13th in the country, and when comparing per capita taxes, the state is about 23rd in the United States. Beal said Maine’s municipalities rank 41st in the nation in terms of tax burden, and that nine states spend less than Maine in terms of municipal taxes.
Another anonymous audience question asked whether TABOR II would affect the development of green jobs in Maine. Hanson said TABOR II would hamstring the state’s efforts to pursue green jobs.
In response to a question, St. John said the state legislature could repeal the initiative the year after its passage, but doubted legislatures would have the conviction to do so because they’d feel they would be opposing the will of the voters.
“They [proponents] don’t look at the facts,” St. John said. “A vote for Question 4 is a vote for a permanent recession.”