Tax Reform Moves Forward
(from Maine Townsman, November 2002)
by Geoff Herman, Director of State & Federal Relations, MMA
The excitement of an election day is that it always puts change into motion, and Tuesday, November 5 was no exception. Mike Michaud has moved from the Maine Senate to become Maine’s new representative to Congress from the Second District. John Baldacci, the State’s current Congressman from that district, was picked as Maine’s next Governor. A healthy turnout of Maine voters elected their 121st Legislature into office. A new administration, a new legislature…change is in the air.
Change was also on the minds of hundreds and perhaps thousands of municipal and school leaders and interested citizens across the state who helped coordinate or otherwise participate in the gathering of signatures for a major tax reform initiative. Originally developed by a steering committee of municipal officials specially appointed by MMA’s President Gary Brown, the “School Finance and Tax Reform Act of 2003” is now being advanced by a group called the Citizens to Reduce Local Property Taxes Statewide (Citizens), of which MMA is a member. Several statewide educational organizations have endorsed the proposal and are expected to join Citizens.
Details of the initiative have been provided in previous editions of the TOWNSMAN and can be found at the Citizens’ website www.mainetaxreform.com. In a nutshell, the initiative would give relief to the property tax by requiring the State to provide more financial support for public education, compel the Legislature to engage in comprehensive tax reform to modernize the state’s tax code and make state revenue more predictable, direct some existing resources into investments to restructure the delivery of government services to obtain greater efficiencies and cost-savings, and develop a comprehensive plan, involving all levels of government in Maine, to reduce the State’s overall tax burden. Relief – Reform – Restructuring – Reduction. The four R’s.
Those themes were certainly clicking with the voters on election day. Thousands upon thousands of voters eagerly snatched up a pen to help this initiative advance to the next step, which will be a submission to the Legislature in early 2003.
“It’s about time.” “Absolutely!” “Of course I’ll sign that.” “Thanks for bringing this issue front-and-center.” “We’ve got to do something.” “I hope this goes all the way.” The front-line volunteers who took the time to solicit signatures for this effort on election day heard comments like these in a steady stream all day long. The public support was mind-boggling, as was the voters’ intensity of interest, clear understanding of the underlying issues of state and local tax policies and pressures, and their deeply genuine resolve to address the core issues of property tax relief, responsible taxation and state revenue predictability. These characteristics could not have been expressed by Maine’s voters more clearly or more firmly – stridently, at times — as they left their polling booths and lined up at the petition table,.
For those of us who have been working on this proposal for many long months, we cannot thank the coordinators and volunteers enough who put in the long and sometimes exhausting hours up to and including election day to make sure this effort succeeded. Without the enthusiastic participation of municipal and school folks from all corners of Maine, this proposal could not have jumped off the drawing board into the public arena. North or south, small or big, coastal, inland, it didn’t matter. The response from the towns and cities all across Maine was overwhelming.
The next month or so will be spent making sure all the signatures are properly certified, collected, organized and prepared for submission to the Secretary of State’s Office for state-level tabulation. The deadline for submitting those signatures to the Secretary’s Office is January 23, 2003. For the past four years, the minimum number of valid signatures that must be collected on a statewide citizen initiative petition has been 42,101, because that was 10% of the number of voters who cast a ballot in the gubernatorial election of 1998. Because of a larger overall turnout, the election of November 5 increased that minimum number to an estimated 51,000. Assuming the Secretary of State finds that this initiative on school funding and tax reform has garnered the necessary number of signatures, the initiative will then be presented to the Legislature for its consideration. The Legislature’s options are essentially three. It can enact the initiative word-for-word. It can reject the initiative, in which case it would automatically be presented to the voters at the statewide election on November 4, 2003. Or it can develop an alternative to the citizen initiative, which would be attached to the ballot on November 4 as a “competing measure.”
The gathering of signatures on election day is a tremendous first step in moving this proposal forward, but in many respects the work has just begun. A full-scale educational campaign must now be developed to make sure our legislators and all the citizens of Maine have a solid understanding of the essential elements of this proposal – relief, reform, restructuring and reduction – so that it can be given a fair hearing before the Legislature and the full electorate. The municipal view is that the School Finance and Tax Reform Act of 2003 is a moderate and effective proposal that would enact immediate relief and put into quick motion an integrated network of public policy strategies that would greatly benefit the whole State of Maine and the residents, school students, businesses and communities within it.
A great network of volunteers on election day 2003 gave the breath of life to the opportunity that this initiative provides. For all your good work, we are extremely grateful.