SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council voted unanimously Oct. 5 to oppose Question 4 on the statewide referendum ballot, the second so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
TABOR II would essentially freeze state and local government budgets at the current level, allowing growth at the same rate as average real personal income. Any spending needed above that level would have to approved by voters.
A similar question was rejected by Maine voters in 2006.
Councilors said TABOR II is a bad policy that would have disastrous effects on local services and infrastructure. Councilors also said the proposal would remove an element of local control.
“I think that the idea that you can run government spending and taxation from remote control to the extent that this initiative attempts is a fantasy,” Councilor Tom Coward said. “I think it’s a dangerous fantasy.”
At the state level, the initiative would require budget mailings be sent to every resident in the state if voters are asked to approve spending over the state limit. City officials said those mailings would add $800,000 to state election costs.
Coward said that Colorado is the only state with a similar law, but has had to repeal portions to prevent the government from going bankrupt.
“It’s a doomed exercise,” he said.
City officials said the current system of budgeting is the most effective, because local elected representatives are best positioned to respond to concerns about local spending. Officials also noted that the current budget is $1.1 million below the current state limit.
Councilor Patti Smith said the proposal would reduce the amount of money available to fix roads and bridges, while giving the city less flexibility to respond to winters that bring heavy snow fall.
“Many people complain that the roads are crumbling and the sidewalks don’t look great,” Smith said. “All of the roads and state roads in our city will be affected.”
Councilor Jim Soule honed in on the wording of the question, which asks “Do you want to change existing formulas that limit state and local government spending and require voter approval by referendum for spending over those limits and for increases in state taxes?”
“It sounds very simplistic,” Soule said. “But the devil is in the details.”
Councilors were also wary about fiscal 2010 being the baseline year for future spending, since the recession has lead to significant decreases in revenue and, by extension, expenditures. City Manager Jim Gailey said the current budget is built on $800,000 less revenue than previous years. “This budget is a very bare-bones budget,” he said.
Councilor Linda Boudreau said the city, at one time, imposed a spending cap on itself, but repealed it a year later because it “crippled local government.” Although she said she is confident South Portland voters will defeat the measure, Boudreau encouraged residents to do more than simply vote against the proposal.
“We may be the victim of someone else’s vote,” she said. “I would encourage residents of South Portland not only to convince their neighbors to vote against this, but to go wider than that. Talk with the folks in greater Portland, in the county and throughout the state. Tell all your relatives, this is not going to be a good move.”
This was the second resolution opposing a statewide initiative the council has passed. Two weeks ago, councilors opposed Question 2, the statewide referendum that would reduce excise taxes on newer vehicles. The city would lose about $1.9 million in local revenues if the excise initiative is passed, they said.
City officials have said that whatever revenue would be lost in excise taxes would have to be made up with drastic cuts to services or substantial property tax increases.