Time for TABOR

By Stephen Bowen | Sep 08, 2009

Voters headed to the polls this November will find a crowded ballot awaiting them. There is a referendum question proposing to repeal the new gay marriage law, a question pertaining to medical marijuana, and a proposal to repeal the school district consolidation law passed in 2007. There are also two initiatives on the ballot, authored by the Maine Heritage Policy Center where I work, that would, if passed, put Maine back on a path to greater prosperity.

One of the initiatives is Question 4, “An Act to Provide Tax Relief,” which is a new and improved version of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiative that appeared on the ballot in 2006. If passed, the bill would require voter approval of any major tax hikes and any increases in state spending that exceeded spending caps. It would require that certain spending increases by towns and counties also be approved by voters, and, additionally, it requires towns to adopt a common budget format and post their budgets on the Internet, allowing taxpayers to easily compare one town’s spending to another.

In short, it gives Maine taxpayers a lot more say over how high Maine’s taxes are.

Voters will also have the chance to pass an initiative that would actually cut a hated Maine tax. Question 2, if approved, will cut the state’s obscenely high automobile excise tax and provide incentives for the purchase of a more fuel efficient vehicle.

Why are these two ballot initiatives so critical for Maine’s future?

In a newly released report, Scott Moody, chief economist for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, compares the growth of private sector jobs here in Maine over the past decade with the growth of government jobs. What he found is shocking.

Data from the Maine Department of Labor, Moody reveals, shows that there are fewer people working in the private sector today than there were 10 years ago. As of June 30, 2009, there were about 493,000 people working in Maine’s private sector businesses. In June of 2000, though, there were about 506,000 Mainers working in the private sector, 13,000 more than are working there today.

Think about what this means. Job growth in Maine’s private sector has been so anemic over the past decade that the recent economic downturn wiped out all the job gains the state saw since 2000 and then some.

The same is not true, though, for government employment. Moody found, unbelievably, that there are 3,400 more people working for state and local government than there were in 2000, despite the state’s recent economic woes. All we hear from our towns and counties and from Augusta is that government budgets have been cut to the bone, yet 3,400 more people are working for government than in 2000, even though there are 13,000 fewer people working in the private sector to support them.

Here, in a single set of statistics, is all you need to know about why Maine’s economic health, as measured by personal income growth, job creation, or just about any indicator one chooses, continues to trail the national average year after year. For every four private sector jobs that were lost over the past decade, Maine added a government job for those who were still working in the private sector to support.

Is there any state or nation on earth that has followed a path like that and become prosperous?

These findings may also explain why Mainers are working harder than ever. According to 2007 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Maine is one of only nine states in the nation, along with economic powerhouses like North Dakota, where the percent of workers holding multiple jobs exceeds 8 percent. Maine’s percentage of multiple jobholders was only 6.7 percent in 1995.

In 1995, though, total spending by the state of Maine was $3.6 billion. This year that amount will be $7.4 billion, more than twice as much, even as Maine’s private sector struggles to survive.

Out-of-control government spending like this has brought Maine’s economy to the brink. The sheer weight of all this government has been like a stone around the necks of Maine’s private sector job creators. The only solution, if we are ever to have a robust and dynamic economy, is to put strict controls on government spending.

Question 4 will do that. Contrary to the doomsday scenarios one hears from those who work for or are dependent on government, the new Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiative does not cut even one government program and neither does the proposed excise tax cut. All they do is give taxpayers, at long last, the power to decide how hard they are prepared to work to support Maine’s massive and multitudinous governments.

The opportunity for voters to give themselves that power is only weeks away, but even that may not be soon enough. If the trend Moody identified continues, it won’t be long before the only people who are working in the state of Maine work for the government.

Happy Labor Day.
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