House: Make sacrifice, enact spending rule

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Considered alone, a sacrifice bunt means little. In the context of the entire baseball game, though, one sacrifice could mean winning or losing.

A coalition headed by the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Education Association, and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce is pushing its tax relief proposal to the Legislature, a plan this unlikely band of advocacy organizations unveiled in autumn’s waning weeks.

Billed as a Taxpayer Bill of Rights alternative, the proposal is actually a history lesson.

The chamber, in responding to the Palesky cap in 2004, sketched a tax relief outline it called the “Maine Plan.” It became the basis for LD 1, but lawmakers eased override provisions for spending caps into majority votes, rather than restrictive super-majorities, as called for in the Maine Plan.

Now, the chamber and its partners urge a return to the stricter overrides, and have asked the Legislature to voluntarily restrict spending beyond LD 1’s caps to only be allowed by a two-thirds vote. This provision would become part of the Legislature’s “joint rules” until January 2009.

It’s the legislative equivalent of a sacrifice bunt. By restricting its ability to override LD 1, the Legislature can show the team – the citizenry of Maine – it wants to win, with the prize effective tax relief.

Time is scarce. Enacting joint rules requires a majority vote of the House and Senate until Friday. After then, rule changes require a two-thirds vote of both legislative bodies, which observers say would be improbable to muster.

The Maine Senate has agreed to the two-thirds rule. “My senate district supported TABOR,” said Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, on Monday. “It assures the public [the Legislature] is working together, in bipartisan way, if they exceed the cap. To me, [this] sends a strong message to support the rule.”

A vote in the House of Representatives, though, was stalled by an analysis of the rule by the Maine Attorney General. Therein lies the rub: today – Tuesday – is the only legislative session prior to the Jan. 19 deadline. (Lawmakers are touring Southern Maine via bus the remainder of this week.)

So it’s today, or probably nothing. Representatives need to follow the Senate and approve the rule, which is a good faith effort that shows taxpayers Augusta supports tax relief.

The coalition’s plan faces serious obstacles. Its major plank is phased reform of Maine’s educational system into 26 “regional planning alliances,” a thunder that was stolen by the governor’s ambition to force consolidation of Maine’s top-heavy school districts into 26 regional units.

Rejecting this joint rule, however, could scuttle the coalition’s compromise. Does the Legislature want to send that message? Members of the coalition certainly don’t. Mark Gray, head of the Maine Education Association, said recently, “If we face another TABOR in 2008, we can’t defeat it,”

Nor should one be defeated. For if another TABOR-like initiative arises in 2008, it will follow legislative missteps.

Such as the House refusing to sacrifice, and failing to enact this joint rule.

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