TABOR myths and facts

By Stephen Bowen | Oct 24, 2009

The campaign against the Question 4 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, initiative is well under way, and according to recently released documents from the state’s Ethics Commission, very well funded. Anti-TABOR forces raised $660,000 during the most recent reporting period, nearly all of it from tax-and-spend special interests both within Maine and outside of Maine.

These organizations will use the massive war chest they’ve amassed to convince Maine people that they should give up the opportunity to have more say over how their tax dollars are spent. As part of this effort, these groups are undertaking an unprecedented campaign of misinformation, an example of which recently appeared in the pages of this paper.

What is the truth about the Question 4 TABOR initiative?

Strangely, the leading argument one hears from the anti-TABOR forces is that because similar measures have lost at the polls in the past, this issue has somehow been irrevocably decided. Setting aside for a moment the truly bizarre notion that a measure should never go before voters again if it has ever been voted on previously, this argument presumes that the problem of Maine’s high tax burden has been solved.

The fact is, though, that despite all kinds of promises that they would deal with Maine’s high spending (promises that get made, by the way, every time a citizens initiative to control government spending appears on the ballot), the Legislature has, since 2006, enacted more than $300 million in new taxes. Thankfully, last year’s new taxes on beer, wine and soda never took effect, but only because the citizens of Maine collected thousands of signatures and put those taxes to a vote. Maine people voted them down by a 2-to-1 margin.

The Question 4 TABOR initiative, if passed, would put such tax increases out to a vote of the public automatically. This is, of course, something the tax-and-spend special interests don’t want to have happen, which is why they are fighting Question 4 with such ferocity.

The anti-TABOR forces are also working hard to perpetuate the myth that TABOR would somehow lock-in existing levels of municipal spending. The fact is that under TABOR, voters would still be able to approve any level of municipal spending they wished. TABOR would simply require that spending growth above a certain level of increase be approved by voters at a referendum.

TABOR does not cut a single program or budget line at any level of government from town hall to the State House. It allows the slow and steady growth of government spending and simply requires that voters give their approval for large spending increases. At the state level, it additionally requires voter approval for major tax increases.

That sounds reasonable, of course, but one can easily see why the tax-and-spend special interests that are funding the anti-TABOR campaign want to prevent voters from having this kind of authority over how their tax dollars are spent.

Another argument we are hearing is that the referendum elections that TABOR requires in order to approve certain tax and spending increases will be too costly. This criticism is laughable coming from people who are so desperate to spend your money that they put bond issues out to voters in June and November of 2002, November of 2003, November of 2005, June and November of 2007, and June and November of 2008.

The Legislature also seems to have had no issue with putting a ballot question out to voters in 2007 that would have lengthened their own terms in office. Strangely, we didn’t hear anything about the high cost of referendum elections then.

The fact is that between races for elective office and bond issues, the polls are open for statewide elections in June and November nearly every year and adding one or two additional questions to these existing ballots has minimal cost. Those campaigning against TABOR don’t really care about the costs of these elections anyway, they just don’t want you to be able to vote on spending and tax increases.

The massive war chest the anti-TABOR forces command means you will also hear plenty about the state of Colorado, which passed a similar TABOR provision in 1992. Today, Colorado is among the most prosperous states in the nation. It has high personal incomes, low taxes, good schools and an excellent business climate.

According to the opponents of Question 4, though, Colorado is a disaster. Why do they think this? Because the tax-and-spenders only measure how well a state is doing in terms of government spending. Colorado taxpayers have chosen not to spend as much as the tax-and-spenders think they should; thus Colorado is a disaster.

Take education. Colorado spends less per pupil than Maine, which the anti-TABOR forces love to point out. What they don’t like to point out is that students in Colorado do as well as or better than Maine students on standardized tests (Maine and Colorado high schoolers have the exact same average SAT scores, for instance), even though Maine spends far more per pupil.

The same is true for higher education. TABOR opponents claim that college is more costly in Colorado, but the opposite is true. Tuition rates are lower at public colleges and universities in Colorado, and, because Coloradans have higher incomes, Colorado families must commit a far smaller share of their annual income to cover college costs than do Maine families.

That TABOR has not devastated Colorado, as some are claiming, may explain why Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2008 proposal to eliminate TABOR altogether. Despite what you hear, TABOR remains on the books in Colorado, and is more popular now than ever.

You won’t hear any of this from the anti-TABOR forces, though. They have proven that they will say anything in order to dissuade Maine people from giving themselves more say over how Maine governments spend their money. In the end, that is all that TABOR really does.

That the tax-and-spenders don’t want you to have that power and don’t want you to have more of a voice should tell you all you need to know about how to vote on Question 4.
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