TABOR Vote Could Tame Runaway Spending
By Rep. Rich Cebra
On Election Day next November, Maine voters will finally get a chance to bring
runaway state spending under control. For that matter, they will also be able
to get local and county spending under control, too.
Does that mean they will throw out the free spenders who have driven Maine's
tax burden to the highest in the country? Maybe, but voters get that chance
every two years and seldom take advantage of it.
True salvation could come in the form of a "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights"
(TABOR). If the TABOR referendum passes, Maine would join a growing list of
states "“ more than 20 "“ where frustrated taxpayers are taking matters into
their own hands by stripping politicians of the power to spend us into the
Under TABOR, spending increases at all levels of Maine government could rise
by a factor of inflation plus population growth "“ and no more. It also would
ensure that a portion of surplus revenues would be invested in a "budget
stabilization" fund, to smooth out spending during economic downturns.
Most of the surplus, however, would be returned to taxpayers. (In Colorado,
where the first TABOR took effect, taxpayers have received more than $3
billion in rebates since 1993.) As a safeguard measure, and to deal with
emergencies, Maine's TABOR would require a two-thirds majority vote by the
Legislature, plus a majority vote by Maine citizens, to increase spending
above the allowable limits.
If a majority of voters think that makes sense, they will fundamentally change
the future of Maine's fiscal policy and set a course for stable "“ but
limited "“ state and local governmental growth. By passing TABOR, voters
would also almost certainly force a long-overdue revamping of Maine's tax
system to eliminate the "structural deficits" that appear like clockwork
with every new state budget. With a TABOR law in place, the state would have
to prioritize programs, requiring reductions or elimination in spending for
some of them. This would shift the debate about state spending entirely.
You might think that such a common-sense idea would enjoy universal support.
But you would be wrong. As the buildup to the TABOR vote gets underway, expect
to see the proposal attacked ferociously by every special interest group that
feeds on tax money. It will come most vehemently from Maine's large
contingent of do-gooders and socialists, who demand we spend money we no
longer have to fund their pet programs. Scare tactics and "horror stories"
will be amplified in the media, with predictions of doom thrown in for shock
Nonetheless, few people could disagree about the need to control spending.
State spending has skyrocketed, way beyond inflation, in recent years. The
state has put nearly 300,000 people on Medicaid. That's about 19 percent of
our population, the highest rate in the entire country. The cost is enormous
"“ more than $600 million a year. Even so, we owe $345 million to Maine
hospitals for treating all those folks on Medicaid. The state expanded
Medicaid eligibility way beyond federal requirements, and now refuses to pay
the hospitals, doctors and other health care providers who attend to them.
Those costs are "shifted: to companies and individuals who buy health
Meanwhile, surging property taxes are driving Mainers from their homes and
putting home ownership out of reach for our young people. All told, we have
the highest tax burden in the country, which kills businesses and forces our
younger workers out of the state to find jobs.
When you send money to Augusta, the Legislature spends every dime of it, every
time, and then demands more. There is no spending discipline whatsoever. This
is how we've dug ourselves into a state debt of $5.3 billion. In a quiet but
serious crisis, we owe $3 billion to the state pension fund for teachers.
Politicians promise the moon to get votes, and then, when the money isn't
there, they pass the costs on to the next generation. No wonder people are
increasingly fed up with government. It taxes them to death, and then saddles
their children with debt.
When you run up huge debt obligation even with the highest tax burden in
America, the situation is out of control. Maine taxpayers pay $4,309 per
capita in state and local taxes. That's $17,236 per year for a family of
four. Our overall tax burden is 30 percent higher than the national average.
Unless TABOR passes, it will only grow worse.
As a follow-up step, we need to enshrine TABOR in the Maine constitution, to
stymie those spendthrift politicians who hate living within their means.
Rep. Rich Cebra, a small-business owner, represents Casco, Naples and part of