Municipal association takes stand against TABOR II, excise tax initiative
AUGUSTA — A non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides assistance to local governments will oppose the Excise Tax initiative and TABOR II in a series of public presentations throughout the state.
As towns throughout Maine struggle with whether to take an official position on the two initiatives, the Maine Municipal Association has scheduled 13 regional presentations beginning this week. In an e-mail invitation to municipal officials and the public, the event is billed as a presentation that will also include supporters of the two initiatives. But Jeff Austin, MMA legislative advocate and lobbyist, acknowledged Tuesday there will be no scheduled speakers offering opposition to the MMA's point of view.
"Unfortunately, we were hoping we would have proponents," he said. "We gave invitations to the Maine Heritage Policy Center and Maine Leads advocacy groups and also to people listed as campaign chairs for both, and they declined to participate. They turned us down."
Austin said they will ask if any member of the audience would like to present the "pro side."
Chris Cinquemani, chairman of More Green Now, which supports the excise tax initiative, confirmed the MMA had sent invitations to the campaigns to speak in favor of the initiatives, but they had declined.
"We felt the time was better spent coordinating statewide events with wider audiences so more people can hear," he said Tuesday. "(The MMA presentations) are stacked with people benefiting from the state's overspending and our high tax burden ... with their minds already made up."
And David Crocker, of TABOR NOW, said the MMA's format is "inefficient, going on an exhaustive road show presenting to a relatively small audience."
Both groups said they plan to hold debates on radio and television that will attract a larger audience. Though the details are not yet available, Crocker said he expects participation from both sides.
When asked how many audience members he expects at the presentations, Austin said it was hard to tell.
"During the TABOR presentation in Berwick, we got a half-dozen people; in Bridgeton, there were 40," he said.
During the MMA's presentations, various representatives from the organization's staff will address why they oppose Question 2, the citizens' initiative to cut the excise tax rate. According to Austin, if the initiative passes, the state will lose $80 million to $85 million –a third of the local budget for roads statewide. While no state law mandates that money be used for road upkeep, at the local level, most towns use a good portion of it to cover the cost of plowing, repair and reconstruction, he said. Austin predicted towns will see a shift to property taxes to cover the difference.
But Cinquemani said Maine has the seventh highest automobile tax rate in the nation. As supporters of Question 2, More Green Now believes the legislation will encourage more car sales and sales of more efficient cars while putting more money back in residents' pockets and increasing jobs in Maine.
Regarding the MMA's opposition to Question 4, known as TABOR II, Austin said the requirement for a referendum to approve municipal spending over set limits should not be forced on municipalities by the state but, instead, towns should be allowed to choose how to make their decisions at the local level.
Crocker said TABOR NOW supports Question 4 because it gives voters the power to approve any significant increase in taxation, which would help improve the fiscal situation in Augusta.
At this point, with less than two months to go before the November election, both sides claim to be on the winning team.
"We believe this will go like a lot of initiatives in the past," Austin said. "There is an initial attraction to cutting taxes, but the trend has always been as they hear from local officials where the money goes, they become a bit more understanding."
According to the More Green Now Web site, in a poll conducted in May by the market research firm Critical Insights 60 percent supported a local referendum requirement to limit growth in government spending and 67 percent favored an initiative to cut automobile excise taxes.
The MMA presentations are free and open to the public.
Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.