Panel set to let voters decide TABOR issue


AUGUSTA – On the eve of a final push to conclude the 2006 regular legislative session, two panels of Maine lawmakers gathered at the State House on Sunday to discuss outstanding issues including a looming referendum to impose strict spending caps on government.

The Taxation Committee signaled it was prepared to pass on to voters a citizen initiative dubbed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights for an up or down statewide vote without placing any competing measure on the ballot.

The Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, cobbled together nearly $6 million for the University of Maine and the state community college system that advocates said could ease upward pressures on tuition levels.

The higher education funding package was unanimously endorsed as the Appropriations panel opened a final review of dozens of bills that had already won tentative House and Senate approval but that still carried price tags.

Less than $1 million was said to be available for those items, but creativity reigned.

For instance, to come up with the higher education bonus, lawmakers voted to transfer a surplus in the account for reimbursing Homestead exemptions to municipalities.

The University of Maine would receive $4.2 million and the community colleges $1.6 million.

In taking up the taxpayer citizen initiative, Taxation panelists faced few options and had no authority to alter the proposed legislation that referendum backers had submitted.

The proposal seeks to limit annual spending increases for state and local governments and schools.

Following a three-week recess, the state Senate and House of Representatives reconvene Monday.

Other issues sure to come up this week are competing funding proposals for bridge and highway projects and potential changes in the state’s Dirigo Health program.

Last month, the Senate advanced a revised short-term funding plan for the Dirigo Health program that would cut a $44 million savings offset payment due from insurers to $23 million.

Last week, Democrats reacted coldly to a Republican cash-only suggestion for increased highway funding.