Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Articles By Peter Mills

We need a fiercely moderate alternative

Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel Sunday, October 8, 2006

Maine doesn't need the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

Instead, we need a consortium of responsible civic voices prepared to propose and enforce passage of an alternative multi-dimensional plan to control government spending, one that is stronger than TABOR, better crafted, effective without senseless paralysis -- one that improves on familiar laws already in place.

Most candidates in Maine oppose TABOR but know they must do something. They are searching for an alternative that will work. Many will gladly endorse a plan and commit to its passage if it is supported, endorsed and promoted by a spectrum of fiercely moderate citizens who will back the plan regardless of whether TABOR passes or fails.

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights' failure in Colorado is now common knowledge. When the bill, commonly known as TABOR, was enacted after its third petition drive in 1992, it slowly became apparent in town after town that it was not working. Colorado towns and local districts by the hundreds eventually voted to "de-Bruce" themselves and opt out of the shackles designed by TABOR's founder, Doug Bruce.

The controversy finally erupted at the state level, as the result of a campaign led by the Colorado business community, culminating in a vote to rid the state itself of TABOR in November of 2005. It split the Republican Party and ultimately lost it control of the Colorado legislature.

During all of this time, TABOR has been adopted nowhere else in America despite 18 years of well-funded advocacy by the wealthy western zealots who wrote it and backed it.

In Maine our towns and cities enjoy the power of home rule. Any of them can pass a TABOR ordinance whenever its citizens choose. Yet not one has done so. If the TABOR experiment is worth trying in Maine, one would think that some of our towns should step forward to show the rest of us how it works. None has volunteered.

Yet if TABOR passes statewide on November 7, it will impose its provisions all at once on 489 towns, 16 counties, 285 school units, numerous sewer, water and trash districts and the Maine Turnpike Authority -- but not on the state itself, which is constitutionally exempt from TABOR's constraints. Despite public perception about the spending limits in TABOR, it is only a constitutional amendment that can force the legislature into spending limits with the state budget.

Why are Maine people tempted to pass it? Because tax anger in our state has never been so elevated. Mainers are scared not to support it. We are profoundly fearful of validating the status quo, of failing "to send a message."

And who can blame us? Decades of fiscal imprudence are catching up with our poor state. Our Chambers of Commerce, the Brookings Institute, members of both political parties -- even the left leaning Maine Childrens' Alliance -- these prominent civic groups all agree that the time has come to buckle down.

However, TABOR is completely ineffectual in controlling what matters most. Not only does it fail to control borrowing, it actually encourages lawmakers to defer present obligations into future years. This is exactly why it failed in Colorado. In Maine, improvident debt, unfunded retirement benefits and deferred highway maintenance are already our biggest budget woes. TABOR will make them worse.

If TABOR passes, it will actually repeal much tighter budget constraints that were passed by the Maine legislature in 2005. The Maine TABOR petition was drafted before this law was passed, a law that our state and local officials have now lived with for two budget cycles. The time has come to make lawmakers stick to those 2005 limits by sealing the loopholes we've discovered and making overrides more difficult. To do that, we'd have to require that the law's budget limitations can be exceeded only with a 2/3 vote of the legislative body or a vote by plebiscite -- but not by requiring both as TABOR proposes.

Maine legislators can best control their own borrowing and spending by adopting a rule that will bind their votes for the duration of each biennium, just as the U.S. Senate does with its long-standing cloture rule. Which means if they want to control runaway budgets, they need to force themselves to stick with their original budget votes and not be able to chip away at them as the session plays out.

The good thing about TABOR is that it has brought this discussion of taxes and spending into the campaign season in a graphic way. The bad thing is that it may pass without the emergence of a responsible alternative. If that happens, hang onto your saddle while we repeat the same wild bronco ride that Colorado is recovering from after 14 years of senseless and damaging turmoil.