AUGUSTA – The Taxpayer Bill of Rights will be on the ballot in November.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court cleared the way for TABOR on Thursday when it overturned a Superior Court ruling that found the secretary of state erred when he accepted signed petitions beyond a deadline set by the Legislature.
“The question of the statute’s consistency with the [c]onstitution is at the heart of this case,” wrote Chief Justice Leigh Ingalls Saufley for the five-judge majority. “The statute creates a limited period for circulation and establishes a one-year deadline from issuance of the petition to filing with the [s]ecretary of [s]tate for the exercise of the people’s right of initiative. The [c]onstitution not only does not require such expeditious filing, it establishes no starting date from which a petition’s filing must be measured.”
If enacted, TABOR would place strict limits on state and local government spending and require a two-thirds vote and referendum to exceed the limit or to raise taxes and fees.
At issue was a 2005 decision by Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. On Friday, Oct. 21, 2005, supporters of TABOR submitted petitions to Dunlap containing 54,127 signatures. On Monday, Oct. 24, they submitted an additional 4,024 signatures. The deadline for petitions, according to state law, was Oct. 21.
The first batch of petitions did not contain enough valid signatures to get TABOR on the ballot. Dunlap decided to accept the petitions from Oct. 24, which put TABOR over the top.
Kathleen McGee, an elections activist and TABOR opponent, appealed Dunlap’s ruling to Superior Court. On April 4, the Superior Court ruled that the secretary of state had no authority to accept the second set of petitions and that the statutory deadline was not unconstitutional.
“I do think, and continue to believe, that the one-year statute was reasonable and constitutional,” McGee said. “I think the supreme court’s decision is going to leave the door open very possibly to other court cases. It leaves a lot of discretion in the hands of the secretary of state.”
Mary Adams, a state tax activist and the primary organizer behind the TABOR initiative, took the case to the Supreme Judicial Court, which heard oral arguments on April 25.
“I’m most happy for the people of the state because they’re going to be able to vote on putting taxpayers in charge of taxes,” Adams said Thursday after learning of the decision. “If the Superior Court decision had prevailed, we’d have been back to square one. This way, everything comes together in November. TABOR will be on the ballot along with people who support TABOR.”
The only thing that could keep TABOR off the ballot is if the Legislature enacts the bill unchanged when it returns to Augusta on May 22, an unlikely scenario in the Democrat-controlled State House.
When the Legislature returns, it has the option of placing a competing measure alongside TABOR on the ballot.
“We need to be here to determine if we want a competing measure or not,” Speaker of the House John Richardson, D-Brunswick, said. “It’s in the minds of people, but I don’t think any serious decision has been made on it.”
Citizens United to Protect Our Public Safety, Schools and Communities, a coalition of groups opposed to TABOR, held a news conference Thursday in anticipation of the supreme court’s ruling.
Speakers, including representatives from the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Education Association and the Maine Children’s Alliance, attacked TABOR as bad public policy.
“The supermajority aspect of TABOR undercuts the principles of majority rule,” said Mark Gray, the executive director of the MEA. “TABOR would impose inflexible, permanent and crippling cuts to essential services in communities across our state.”
Gov. John Baldacci and the majority of the Democratic state lawmakers oppose TABOR.
The Republican Party, which generally favors the proposal, will decide Saturday during its state convention whether to include TABOR as part of the party platform.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Adams said. “But at the state level, Democrats seem to be united against it. … There’ll be a big celebration at the Republican convention.”