AUBURN – Two of the state’s policy behemoths battled over breakfast Thursday in a TABOR debate sponsored by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.

Bill Becker from the Maine Heritage Policy Center and Kit St. John of the Maine Center for Economic Policy brought their traveling Taxpayer Bill of Rights show to Martindale Country Club in Auburn.

They played to a packed house. The debate, which was part of the chamber’s regular breakfast meeting, was sold out weeks in advance and attracted a standing-room only crowd of almost 250.

For the political leaders and activists in the room, the show was a rerun of the arguments about TABOR that have been playing out at policy forums for months.

But for much of the crowd – the small business owners who make up the majority of the chamber’s membership – it was an introduction to the intricacies of the citizen initiative that would strictly limit local and state spending and taxation, and require a two-thirds vote of a city council or board of selectmen and then a referendum to override the restrictions.

The format was straightforward. The chamber’s policy advisory committee developed a list of questions that each man had a chance to answer before they took written questions from the audience.

The central theme of all the questions centered around whether TABOR would require cuts in municipal and school budgets or whether it simply mandates the ability of the budget to grow.

Speaking in favor of TABOR, Becker said that there’s nothing in the proposed law that would force budgets to move backward.

“This limits growth, but does nothing more,” Becker said. “It gives taxpayers greater say in how much government can grow.”

St. John, who spoke against TABOR, said the question of whether the bill would require cuts is a central disagreement between proponents and opponents. “The conclusion of most municipal attorneys is that they would have to adjust budgets down if they lose population or assessed value.”

St. John used the example of Old Town, which lost a substantial amount of its valuation due to the closing of the Georgia Pacific mill. “Old Town had a reduction of value of 17 percent,” he said.

The issue remained unsettled, with both sides urging people to read the bill and decide for themselves.

Bob Bernier of Auburn walked into the debate with a favorable opinion of TABOR and left the same way.

Bernier, who is a member of the Small Property Owners Association of Auburn, said he has read the proposal and thinks it’s a valuable step in controlling government growth, but said for people who haven’t made up their minds, it might boil down to whose information they’re going to believe.

The hourlong debate also addressed questions about the bill’s particulars and left unresolved some of the finer points that will either be in the hands of lawmakers or the courts.

At its core, TABOR is based on a constitutional amendment that was adopted by Colorado voters in 1992. In 2005, voters suspended parts of the amendment for five years, allowing the state to exceed spending caps.

Maine’s version of the law has a two-step process for voters to override spending limits set by formulas, which are based on the Consumer Price Index, population and valuation, and on increasing taxes and fees. First, the governing body – a city council, board of selectmen or town meeting – would have to approve the increase by a two-thirds vote. Then the override would have to be approved by a referendum.

St. John argued that the proposal creates minority rule, where just a few people can block a vote from ever reaching the community. Becker countered that TABOR is all about giving power to the taxpayers.

“The Taxpayer Bill of Rights is very generous,” Becker said, “because not only does it allow for growth, but it asks individual communities, ‘What do you want to do?'”

According to St. John, the evidence of what TABOR will mean to Maine is in Colorado.

“There were more than 1,100 groups involved in their campaign to suspend TABOR,” St. John said, citing big cuts in public support for higher education, infrastructure and other government services.

Larry Gilbert, former chief of police in Lewiston and a potential mayoral candidate in the city, attended the chamber breakfast.

“Once people hear how the bill will impact them, TABOR will lose support,” Gilbert said. “The services that people want have a cost. … As the speakers said, people are angry, but decisions that are made in anger aren’t usually good decisions.”

Chip Morrison, president of the chamber, said the large crowd demonstrated the interest in TABOR.

“This is a huge issue,” Morrison said. “It’s helpful to a lot of people who haven’t heard any of this before.”

The chamber will decide later this month whether to take a position on TABOR or remain neutral, Morrison said.

TABOR will be on the Nov. 7 ballot as Question 1.

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