AUGUSTA (AP) – Opponents of an initiative campaign that wants to impose fees on water extracted in Maine for bottling are challenging the wording of the proposed ballot question.

The Secretary of State’s office earlier this month approved the wording of the ballot question proposing a law to tax companies that extract, bottle and sell Maine water 3 cents for every 20 ounces extracted, or about 20 cents per gallon.

“We are so concerned the public will be misled by empty promises,” spokeswoman Jane Lazgin of Nestle Waters North America. Poland Spring water, which is bottled in Maine, is a division of Nestle’s and would be affected by the law.

“It is a tax, it is a new tax exactly when Mainers are most concerned about jobs,” said Lazgin.

The state’s approval of the ballot question wording opened the door for the H2O for ME campaign to start collecting more than 50,000 voters’ signatures needed to force a referendum on the question, which is titled, “An Act to Preserve Maine’s Drinking Water Supply.”

As approved by the Secretary of State’s office, the question reads, “Do you want the state to tax companies that extract, bottle and sell Maine water, to create a fund for business loans and conservation projects, and to regulate the amount of water removed?”

The H2O for ME campaign said it will not be deterred by the challenge and plans to have petitioners at the polls on Nov. 2.

Besides imposing the tax, the proposed law creates a trust in which revenues would be deposited. Trust dividends would be paid to every resident of the state who paid state income taxes the previous year.

Portions of the revenues would be allocated to several programs, such as small business loans and water conservation.

H2O for ME campaign leader Jim Wilfong of Stow said Maine residents, who have helped to pay the cost of cleaning up the state’s water for three decades, deserve to get something back for water extracted and sold.

“Currently, the water is given away to bottlers who turn around and sell Maine water at a premium all over the world,” said Wilfong. “Why shouldn’t Maine people receive something in exchange?”

The fees would not apply to water drawn from wells for home use or water sold by regulated utilities. Also exempted are the first 500,000 gallons per year extracted for resale.

Nestle’s Lazgin said her company, which draws tens of millions of gallons of water a year in the state, “would be taxed out of doing business in Maine,” eliminating 550 jobs and millions of dollars the company adds to the state’s economy.

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