Maine must tie spending increases to growth in the economy.
Following the unanimous decision by Maine’s Supreme Court, confirming that Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap correctly certified the Taxpayer Bill of Rights petitions, the Maine Legislature this week officially and correctly sent the referendum to the people for a November vote. Despite efforts to derail the initiative, the Supreme Court and the Legislature held firm on behalf of the people’s sovereign right to petition.
There is tremendous excitement behind the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and with good reason. Maine’s bleak economic conditions, high tax burden, low incomes and tax-and-spend policies have hurt every Mainer – and help is finally on the way in the form of a responsible, gentle and proven solution.
For more than 10 years, Maine’s state and local tax burden has been the highest in the nation. In fact, Mainers’ tax burden is 25 percent higher than the national average, and the state’s median income ranks last in New England and 38th overall. Businesses continue to close or leave the state, and the state’s ability to attract new businesses remains weak.
Anyone who tells you that these facts haven’t had a negative impact on our economy and our incomes must be from another planet.
These trends can be corrected, and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is part of that solution.
The reason that taxes are so high is because Maine government spends more than the economy grows each year. In other words, Maine has, for more than 30 years, grown government to a point that individuals and businesses can no longer afford to pay the bill. So people continue to leave Maine for other states where they can keep more of their own money, and jobs continue to leave Maine for states that don’t penalize successful businesses with high taxes. To make matters worse, few jobs or people replace these losses that we experience as they realize Maine is a great place to visit but not to work.
The Taxpayer Bill of Rights is the first policy solution to specifically address these problems by insisting that our elected officials live within their means. Lawmakers will still be expected to prioritize spending needs and to address policy issues as before, yet the year-to-year spending increases will be tied to a reasonable growth rate that reflects the growth in the economy. This will apply to all levels of government – the state, counties, school districts and municipalities.
Opponents of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and fiscal responsibility, those who constantly claim that the sky will fall without more tax revenue and dramatically higher spending for every government program, erroneously also claim that there will be drastic cuts in government services. Those claims are false. Opponents even claim that somehow it would be bad to allow for voter approval of all new taxes, fees and spending increases above the annual growth allowed by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Not surprisingly, such opponents are usually those who receive direct benefits from taxpayer dollars.
Yet, this isn’t called the “government bill of rights” – it’s the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Government, at all levels, exists to serve the people, providing individuals and businesses with the infrastructure needed for both a civil society and for the free market to flourish. Government has an important role in that regard, yet it must not impinge on the potential for opportunity, entrepreneurship and job creation.
If voters approve the Taxpayer Bill of Rights this fall, we will be sending a message that Maine wants to compete in this global economy. We will be signaling that we understand the negative impacts of too much taxation and too much government spending. We will be saying to our elected officials that we want them to do their job by making government as efficient and effective as possible – and using an appropriate but not unbearable level of taxation to do so.
Of course, we talk a great deal about the numbers, the percentages and the legal details. What we often fail to mention is the core value of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights – the right of Maine families to be Maine families. That includes the right to live and work in Maine, raise families here, and see children and grandchildren for Sunday dinner or an afternoon baseball game, as opposed to the occasional distant holiday visit. Maine now has a government that has threatened and eroded that fundamental value.
The Taxpayer Bill of Rights is the first step at course-correction on behalf of Maine people, and it is long overdue.
Bill Becker is president and chief executive officer of The Maine Heritage Policy Center in Portland.