Passage of Question 4 on the Nov. 3 ballot would approve a citizen initiative called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, also known as TABOR II, which would limit what state and local governments can tax and spend, but which opponents say is too constrictive and could end up harming local services.
The question on the ballot reads: “Do you want to change the existing formulas that limit state and local government spending and require voter approval by referendum for spending over those limits and for increases in state taxes?”
The core idea of TABOR II is its formula, which disallows state and local governments from exceeding its limit. The formula — put simply — is inflation plus population growth. The cost of inflation, as defined in the referendum, is the increase in the consumer price index for the most recent year, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor. Population growth is defined as the “average annual percentage increase” in population during the past three years of available data compiled by the Executive Department. In the words of Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, TABOR II is “a very complex piece of legislation.”
During an Orono Town Council meeting Oct. 19, Town Manager Catherine Conlow took issue with TABOR II. She said it was unrealistic, partly because it includes a provision that requires the state and towns to mail its registered voters information about a ballot at least 30 days in advance of an election whenever the state or town is considering going past the tax formula limit. Conlow said the mailing costs associated with such a state-wide endeavor would be about $800,000. Jim Martin, D-Orono, agreed with Conlow during the meeting.
“We will be having dozens of elections. We will have tons of questions, and we will end up like California where, when you go to the ballot box, you are literally presented with pages and pages of questions,” Martin said.
Proponents of the initiative say the voter-approval requirement of the act would not increase the number of elections or their cost. The act requires voter approval for tax increases that exceed the formula limit to be approved through the usual general election. It does, however, allow for towns and the state to conduct special elections outside of typical voting times.
“It puts control of extraordinary increases into the hands of voters,” said David Crocker, chairman of the TABOR Now campaign, a Yes on 4 group.
TABOR II also requires any excess money left from a fiscal year to be given back to voters as a refund, rather than transferring to the next year’s budget.
Opponents of TABOR II argue the consumer price index and population growth added together make for a constrictive spending limit that will put a damper on the state’s and towns’ ability to fund local necessities such as roads, schools and utilities. They also argue TABOR II will — because of the limit — force towns and the state to greatly increase fees to make up for the loss in tax revenue. Proponents claim these fears are unfounded and that the formula is not restrictive.
“What governments consume is the same as what the private sector consumes,” Crocker said.
“When you’re passing TABOR … it mentions the formula, but it highlights the act that you get to vote in an election, and you get to vote on taxes … but the reality is that the formula is extremely flawed,” Martin said.
Martin said the consumer price index is based on goods the average Mainer buys at home, which can’t compare to services the state and towns pay for.
Martin said Mainers should have a say in tax increases but TABOR II isn’t the way to do it.
“The problem is we already have a process in Maine to do that. It’s called the people’s veto, and it’s used extensively in Maine,” Martin said.
Maine voted in 2006 to reject a similar TABOR initiative.
“At this time in 2006 … [the government] said to the people, ‘Vote down TABOR, and we’ll fix the problem,’” Crocker said. “Well, they haven’t fixed it.”
Out of 26 states that have voted on TABOR-like initiatives, Colorado is the only one that has approved it. Colorado voters suspended the taxpayer refund provision of TABOR in 2005.