EDITOR’S NOTE: Liz Chapman, a veteran newspaper reporter in Maine for over 20 years, is working as a temporary employee of Maine Municipal Association. Liz’s work will center around helping municipal officials and the public have a better understanding of the TABOR initiative. Liz will be writing articles for the TOWNSMAN, and conducting field visits with municipal officials to help explain TABOR impacts in their community.
A recent poll showing 71 percent approval for the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights is somewhat meaningless considering the debate hasn’t really heated up yet and people are still basing their decisions pretty much only on the wording of the question.
The TABOR question that Maine voters will see on November 2, reads:
“Do you want to limit increases in state and local government spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth and to require voter approval for all tax and fee increases?”
Not only is this a “motherhood and apple pie” question, it is also misleading in that the restrictions on local government are much more limiting than inflation and population growth and the limitations on state government is “advisory” at best, since the Legislature cannot be bound by a citizens’ initiative.
In fact, there are many unanswered questions about the impact of TABOR; questions that might not have answers unless the ballot measure passes and is challenged legally.
As Portland pollster Patrick Murphy, president of Strategic Marketing Services, noted in March 2004, the Palesky tax cap proposal also was popular – until voters found out what it would mean to crucial local services such as K-12 education and public safety.
“I think the question straight up probably reads very well — who doesn’t want to cut their taxes?” Murphy told the Associated Press. “When all the issues come out then there’ll be a spirited debate and then who knows how it will go.”
How “it” went for Palesky is well known: Very badly. The Palesky measure was overwhelmingly defeated 63 percent to 37 percent – by any measure, a landslide victory for Maine cities and towns. Like the TABOR initiative, the Palesky proposal was also polling very favorably at the beginning.
Mom’s apple pie
Like other Mainers, Richard Metivier, finance director for the city of Lewiston, dubs the Maine TABOR initiative the “motherhood and apple pie” referendum.
“Who doesn’t’ want to lower their taxes?” Metivier asked in a July interview with the TOWNSMAN. “Where do I sign?”
As with pollster Murphy, Metivier has been around Maine long enough to know that support for irrational, anti-government initiatives falter when the facts are fully understood.
Bert Waisanen, fiscal analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said public education is crucial in ballot debates such as TABOR.
“Education on what the impact is and what the fiscal mechanisms are is key” to helping people understand how TABOR will affect them both personally and in their hometowns, he said in a July interview with the Maine Townsman.
“These fiscal limit initiatives have been going on in a handful of states for several years now,” said Waisanen, who stressed the NCSL does not have a policy position on TABOR or other tax-and-spend initiatives.
Waisanen said Maine’s version of TABOR is the most restrictive since it follows the Colorado model. In fact, Maine’s TABOR is significantly more restrictive on local government than the Colorado TABOR (see MMA website for articles and impact analyses on the Maine TABOR). Even in states where TABOR proposals were less restrictive than the Colorado model, those proposals have been soundly rejected by state legislatures.
Waisanen said when the business community rose up against the impacts of TABOR on Colorado’s infrastructure and other public services, public opinion and momentum began to change.
“What happens (with TABOR ballot votes) this year will help us know where the momentum is,” he said.
Metivier, meanwhile, said Lewiston created a study committee in 2004 to analyze the Palesky referendum’s potential harm to the state’s second-largest city. The panel included several residents who were neither appointed nor elected officials.
“They came in very supportive of the Palesky measure and they left very much opposed to it,” he said.
The multi-state TABOR drives are being financed by two of the nation’s most conservative groups, Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist, and Americans for Limited Government. Oddly, the sidebar below shows that this year’s crop of states is at the bottom of the alphabet, as though the national anti-government effort were that systematic.
The firm National Voter Outreach of Ludington, Michigan, supplied paid petition gatherers in at least seven states in 2005, including Maine, to get the thousands of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
Tough road to hoe
Mary Adams, long-time political activist and front person for the pro-TABOR campaign, has a grueling job ahead in holding on to her supporters once they learn the true implications of TABOR.
Based on voting in 23 other states last year alone, Adams and the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, a chief supporter and author of Maine’s TABOR initiative, have reason to be concerned when the facts come out.
Most of the anti-tax and anti-spending proposals in other states never even made it out of legislative committees in 2005. Legislators from both major parties rejected the measures – either outright or by allowing the session to end without taking action.
The Maine Legislature was among those that killed a TABOR measure last year, compelling Adams and the MHPC to complete the petition drive and get the question on this year’s November ballot.
Pro-TABOR campaigns in seven other states hope to get the measure on the November ballot, although at least two have been mired down in allegations of signature fraud.
Interestingly, voters in California last November defeated Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s TABOR-like spending and tax cap by 62 to 37 percent.
Schwarzenegger took his measure to a referendum after the Legislature rejected it.
Although the TABOR effort is seen by some as political and partisan, a detailed report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that TABOR opposition was broad and deep: legislatures in 13 states were controlled by Republicans, five by Democrats, and six split, with Republicans running one chamber and Democrats another.
Only the state of Colorado has ever passed TABOR and voters just last November suspended parts of the constitutional amendment for five years.
According to Dr. Barry Poulson, the self-proclaimed author of the TABOR model that is being advanced in about a dozen states this year, Colorado voters "esstentially gutted the TABOR Amendment".
The Colorado law targeted only state spending and taxation and took three referendum votes before passing in 1992.
“There is only one TABOR and it took three votes to become law,” said Waisanen, who works in the NCSL’s headquarters in Denver.
Opposition to TABOR
The Maine Municipal Association and its members joined with other opponents to turn around first the momentum and then public opinion on the 2004 Palesky measure by educating citizens, parents, business owners and taxpayers about the dramatic consequences of the Palesky proposal.
Once the facts get out about the TABOR initiative, MMA expects a turnaround in the public opinion that is currently being reflected in the polling.
MMA staff is working with municipalities in trying to realistically judge the local government impact that TABOR would have had over the past decade, had it been in force. Additionally, staff is working one-on-one with 15 municipalities this summer give more detail to the data analysis.
It is also important to show Mainers not only the service impacts of TABOR, but also the loss of local control and the assault on the democratic process where the majority of residents in an individual community determine what is best for the community.
The MMA staff is developing a media plan that will provide tips on how to get information directly – and unfiltered – to your residents, as well as into newspapers and other publications.
The MMA also is a major partner in the political action committee Citizens United to Protect Our Public Safety, Schools and Communities, which includes 85 small and large groups statewide.
“It’s a Trojan Horse. It’s not what it says it is,” Larry Benoit, executive director of Citizens United, said of TABOR in a recent interview with the Townsman. “It will greatly diminish local control and it will lead to substantial cuts in education, health care and elderly services.
The MMA has an abundant array of materials available to members that will help explain the TABOR measure and provide solid information to share with local residents.
The committee is raising money for TV ads that will run later in the campaign season, rallying volunteers (they can use more) and revving up for the statewide public debate that is sure to heat up as the weather cools down.
Visit the MMA website at www.memun.org for updates and analysis of TABOR.
SIDEBAR: The ‘Nays’ Have It
Last year, legislatures in 24 states rejected TABOR or TABOR clones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In California, the governor took the measure to a referendum after lawmakers rejected it. Voters then rejected by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
Voters in eight states, including Maine, could decide TABOR ballot measures this November. This year’s measures would all be ballot initiatives, since they are all states in which lawmakers rejected the proposals – mostly in committee and not floor debate.
Following are the states that rejected TABOR in 2005. Except for its early victory in Colorado in 1992, TABOR is batting a reverse .1000: it has struck out in every single state: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin.
Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
SIDEBAR: This Year’s TABOR Crop
Some of the TABOR-like measures in other states are called SOS, short for Stop Over Spending. With minor exception, these initiatives are basically the same. A major observation is that most of them, except for Maine, are entirely focused on state government spending. Ironically, the Maine TABOR is more restrictive on local government than state government, and it is widely believed that the limits on state government are not legally binding.
By mid-July, only the Maine and Rhode Island TABOR measures – far different from each other – had actually been certified for the November 2006 ballot. Signature reviews and investigations are under way in several states and voters in as many as eight more states could vote on TABOR this year.
The multi-state TABOR drives are being financed by two of the nation’s most conservative groups, Americans for Tax Reform and Americans for Limited Government.
The firm National Voter Outreach of Ludington, Mich., supplied paid petition gatherers in at least seven states in 2005, including Maine, to get the thousands of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
Following is a brief summary of the qualified and pending TABOR/SOS initiatives for 2006.
Maine : TABOR. Limits state and local spending and taxation. Only state in which TABOR is proposed as a new law, rather than an amendment to the state constitution.
Michigan: TABOR. Limits only state spending and taxation. Amends state constitution. Signature review pending.
Montana: SOS. Limits only state spending and taxation. Amends state constitution. Signature review pending.
Nebraska: TABOR. Limits only state spending and taxation. Amends constitution. Signature review pending.
Nevada: TABOR. Limits state and local spending and taxation. Amends constitution. Legal challenges under way for alleged signature fraud.
Oklahoma: TABOR. Limits only state spending and taxation. Amends state constitution. Legal challenges under way for alleged signature fraud. (A grand jury in Oklahoma City in July indicted National Voter Outreach signature gatherers for lying to circumvent state signature laws, including getting fake state I.D.s because only Oklahoma residents can lawfully collect referendum signatures)
Oregon: TABOR. Limits only state spending and taxation. Amends constitution. Signature review pending.
Rhode Island: TABOR. Limits only state spending and taxation. Non-binding and advisory.
Footnote: Missouri’s TABOR initiative was rejected by the secretary of state, for failure to follow specific constitutional rules, for the 2006 ballot; legal action is ongoing.