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TABOR up for vote a second time

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TABOR up for vote a second time

Maine voters will again decide whether to impose strict spending caps on state government, two years after a similar measure was narrowly defeated.

The proposal, known as a taxpayer's bill of rights, or TABOR II, will appear as Question 4 on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The concept is simple: State spending would be capped at 2010 levels, with annual increases allowed based on population growth and the Consumer Price Index.

In order to increase spending beyond those limits or raise taxes, a majority of legislators and voters, via a statewide referendum, must approve. Unlike the 2006 TABOR proposal, the new one applies to spending from the General Fund, the highway fund and any other special revenue accounts.

Proponents say TABOR II will give Mainers the ability to keep out-of-control state spending in check; opponents argue it will lock in recession-time spending levels that are based on budgets that have already undergone cuts. They fear the caps will result in further cuts to education and other essential services.

"What we've seen is a very, very rapid expansion of the size of government in Maine at all levels and it's piled on the taxes; it has the net effect of squeezing out the private sector that's going to provide the jobs," said David Crocker, the campaign chairman for the group TABOR Now.

Crocker said the lack of jobs causes young Mainers to move out of state to find work.

"That's my deep concern and my kind of looming terror," he said. "I fully expect the state to go on its bumbling way if TABOR is not passed."

Crocker said TABOR merely limits spending, it doesn't dictate policy.

"TABOR doesn't micro-manage in the slightest, nor would we want to," he said. "Legislators have to set all the same priorities. They have to decide for us where to allocate the resources that they are given. And if they want more (money), then they come to us."

But that hands-off approach is part of what bugs former Gov. Angus King of Brunswick about the measure.

"We have a referendum every two years (already); it's called an election. Let them run and do the hard work of finding out where the cuts are," King said. "Yes, we do have to control spending and reduce taxes. But we're living in an odd time where people don't want to pay for stuff and it's unrealistic."

Phil Nadeau, Lewiston's acting city administrator, said cuts to state spending would end up impacting municipalities.

"At the end of the day, the state's going to have to balance their books largely on our backs," he said, adding that he's speaking out against TABOR II on his own, not for the Lewiston City Council, which has declined to take a position.

"I'm not a Chicken Little kind of guy, OK? We'll do whatever it is we'll need to do, but at the end of the day, somebody's going to be unhappy," he said.

Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for the group opposing TABOR, said statewide referendums cost between $800,000 and $1 million, according to the secretary of state's office.

"The math is not good," she said. "If the TABOR cap was in place, let's say you just wanted to spend $100,000 more. You couldn't do it without spending $1 million."

Both Canney and Nadeau pointed to Colorado, which passed a TABOR initiative in 1992, as a warning to Mainers. In 2005, Colorado voters opted to suspend the law for five years.

"If it's working, you don't go and suspend what you put in place," Nadeau said. "They needed to fix roads and they needed to do stuff with their schools."

Canney said it was the Colorado business community that backed the campaign for suspending TABOR.

No other state has passed similar state spending caps.

The Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce is supporting TABOR, according to President Chip Morrison, as is the Portland Regional Chamber. Last month, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce withdrew it's support for TABOR because members were unable to reach a consensus, according to President Dana Conners. The Bangor Chamber of Commerce came out against the proposal last week.

Crocker said the opposition is exaggerating the circumstances in Colorado, pointing out that spending on education in Colorado has increased annually and it's just "slightly under the national average."

"There are streets here in the city of Portland that are worse than the streets in some provincial cities in Russia that I have visited," he added.

Rebekah Metzler is a staff writer at the Sun Journal in Lewiston. She can be reached at rmetzler@sunjournal.com