Interview with Tarren Bragdon (10/8/09)

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October 8, 2009

Tarren Bragdon

Tarren Bragdon is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center where both the Maine Tax Relief Initiative, Question 4 and the Maine Auto Excise Tax Repeal, Question 2 were authored. Both are scheduled to appear on the November 2009 ballot.

1. At an October 8 press conference at the Sable Oaks Marriott in South Portland Bragdon addressed the importance of Question 4. Below is his response.

For us, Question 4 is all about what one thing - you decide. Who has the final say on big increases and state spending? You, the taxpayer. Who signs off on future tax hikes? You, the taxpayer. That’s why the Maine Heritage Policy Center wrote Question 4. That’s why groups from the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Merchants Association and thousands of individuals across the state are lining up in support of the taxpayer, in support of Question 4.

Question 4 will change Maine fundamentally. It will say to the taxpayer, you decide. You decide how government grows. You decide how taxes grow. We think that the taxpayer finds the need for Question 4 extremely compelling. State spending since 2000 has grown 60% and property taxes in Maine have grown 58%, while inflation is less than half that during the same period. And Mainers’ income have grown about half the rate of government spending increases. Now is the time for people to vote yes on Question 4.

2. Additionally, Bradgon addressed the so-called 'ratchet-down effect' that critics argue has happened in Colorado and could potentially happen in Maine if Question 4 is approved. Below is his response.

One of the things we did in drafting the taxpayer bill of rights for Maine was ensure that there is no 'ratchet effect' on the Maine TABOR. Spending is allowed to grow every year at the rate of inflation plus population. Either of those numbers can never be less than zero. Some of that can never be less than zero. Maine also, a lot like Colorado’s TABOR created a Rainy Day Fund or a budget stabilization fund. So what surplus money goes to the state, $2 out of every $10 goes into that Rainy Day Fund. So that when the economy falters, there is money in the savings account to comp up spending. And what we have seen in this past legislature do is completely run the Rainy Day account down to zero this past May and we’re just beginning what everyone believes is going to be a very long recession. Question 4 has no ratchet effect, but instead a sound budget stabilization fund so that we have smooth predictable increases in government spending, not these wide swings that we have been subjected to over the last 20 years.

3. TABOR was rejected by Maine voters in 2006. How is the campaigning doing this time around?

From 2006, 46% of the voters already support TABOR, the state tax increases since then total $300 million over 4 years. So, our support has only grown. And we only need a small increase in support to push it over the edge and get 50% plus 1.

4. Some critics argue that TABOR in Colorado eliminated a lot of funds from education and ultimately hurt the state's education. Will TABOR impact Maine education?

Maine is a big spender when it comes it education, but what we don’t do well is outcomes. When you compare Maine to other states or when you compare Maine to Colorado, we see that we spend a lot more. We’re the 7th highest per pupil in the country but we have average or below average outcomes when you look at test scores, when you look at high school graduation rate, college enrollment rate, college completion rate. So our challenge is, as a state, we need to stop measuring our success by how much we’re spending and start measuring our success by what are our kids learning and are they prepared to compete in the economy. I think TABOR will do that. Education budgets beginning in 2008, with the 2007 law, had to go out to voter approval whether they went up or went down and what we are seeing is that spending increases have moderated in education but more importantly parents and taxpayers are focused on what are we getting for the money. And that’s what question 4 is all about - what are we getting and how do we have reasonable increases in spending?

5. Town hall meetings are currently used through out the state of Maine to discuss local budgets. Some people say that that way of governing is sufficient to establish the budget and it provides residents a place to voice their opinions about local spending. That a ballot measure on spending isn't necessary. Do you agree or disagree with this notion?

The town hall meeting is a New England tradition but it’s not an accessible way to make important spending decisions. In fact, we’ve done a survey that we will be releasing next week asking people if they think they have too little or too much input when it comes to property tax increases or state spending. About 80% of people say 'too little.' So this is the difference between what the people in government think, compared to what the voters think. Voters want to have that say. What happens in the town meeting is you get 3 or 4% of the voters to decide but if I’m out of town or if I’m physically not able to leave my home I can’t participate. That’s wrong. That’s not access or democracy. That’s just a small group of people getting together to make decisions. That might have worked well in the 1800s when we were all farmers in Maine but its not practical in today’s society. It really limits input.

6. In Maine, TABOR II appears to have stolen some of the spotlight from Question 4, the auto excise tax repeal. Can you tell me about how this campaign is going?

It is, although we are very much focused on both efforts. Maine has, as you know, the 7th highest auto excise tax in the country. This would be cut it in half and make it a much more reasonable tax. It’s a particularly punitive tax for people in the first few years of car ownership, so this is a way for Mainers to finally get the local tax relief they have been promised for years. But it’s a campaign that I think will be very hard fought. The towns like every dollar that they get from taxpayers. They don’t want to get 2% less, which is what would happen when Question 2 passes. So I think that will be a hard fought fight just like Question 4 or TABOR will be.

7. If both Question 2 and Question 4 are approved by Maine voters in November, what exactly does that mean for the state of Maine?

Great things! Because what it means is that we’ll finally get the promise of auto excise tax relief. It’ll be more affordable to buy a newer, safer, cleaner car and at the same time towns won’t be able to simply shift the property tax because voters will decide on large property tax increases. So, I think, it’s the best of all worlds. We get a tax cut, towns will be forced to look at whether they can become 2% more efficient and voters will have the final say if property taxes are increased as a final result.

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