AUGUSTA – With neither debate nor fanfare in the House and only a minor rhetorical skirmish in the Senate, the Legislature on Tuesday night refused to endorse a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, assuring the measure a spot on November’s ballot.
Consideration of the bill, which was initiated by a petition drive, was largely a formality. The Legislature had only three options: Enact the bill as written by petitioners without any changes, attach a competing measure to appear with the question on the ballot, or kill the bill and allow it to stand alone. Lawmakers chose the later.
On Wednesday, lawmakers considered and ultimately rejected a bill that would have placed a second tax question, unrelated to TABOR, on this fall’s ballot. L.D. 484 would have asked voters through an advisory referendum: “Do you favor elimination of certain sales tax exemptions in order to provide income tax relief and property tax relief in a revenue-neutral manner?”
The vote wouldn’t have bound the Legislature to any particular action, but would have given lawmakers a measure of whether the public supports expanding the sales tax in order to lower property and income taxes, according to its supporters.
“If this advisory question does not appear on the ballot, it means that we are satisfied with the current tax system. And that is simply not the case,” said Rep. Thomas Watson, D-Bath and the sponsor of the bill. “There’s no reason to deprive the citizens from chiming in their opinions on tax restructuring.”
Opponents said the measure was nothing more than a polling question that could confuse voters by appearing on the same ballot as TABOR.
“I really view this as a waste of the taxpayers’ time and dollars,” said Rep. Stedman Seavey, R-Kennebunkport. “It really shouldn’t be on the ballot.
“It could be a cruel hoax and could lead to a lot of confusion,” Seavey continued. “It gives citizens greater expectations than this Legislature could ever deliver.”
It was the lack of substance in the bill that bothered Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough.
“There isn’t a lot you can say about this bill because there isn’t a lot to it,” Clough said. “We say nothing about what we have in mind. … This is a mandate to do something undefined.”
The advisory referendum failed in both the House and Senate.
If enacted, TABOR will place strict spending limits on local and state government and require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes or fees.
TABOR’s proponents admitted during debate in the Senate that the bill has problems.
“I understand that the bill is far from perfect,” said Sen. Jonathan Courtney, D-Springvale. “If (TABOR) passes, it gives the Legislature next year the chance to come back and address the deficiencies.”
Opponents of TABOR argued that it would lead to cuts in government services, especially in education.
“I encourage the people of Maine to vote this down because it would be devastating,” said Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland.