Media Archive

Piscataquis County hears plan to lessen tax burden

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 164, No. 41, October 09, 2002

By Ben Bragdon
Staff Writer

MONSON Piscataquis County residents got the chance last week to hear one group's proposal to remedy what many see as problem number one - the rising, suffocating burden placed on Maine taxpayers.

The Maine Municipal Association (MMA) held a meeting at Monson Elementary last week to inform county residents of MMA's campaign to put a citizen's initiative on the 2003 ballot that would attempt to push lawmakers into undertaking statewide comprehensive tax reform, with the focus on reversing the state's overwhelming dependence on property taxes as a source of revenue.

The problems with Maine's tax structure are no secret. Study after study has identified this state's tax code as volatile and unbalanced, with an disproportionate amount of revenue coming from property assessments.

Unhappy with the state legislature's progress on solving this problem, a number of groups have begun to bring their solutions straight to the public, with the hope of forcing the politically-loaded issue into the laps of elected officials by gaining the support of the voters

MMA's proposed initiative targets public education spending, using it to set in motion a series of reforms that would, they say, reduce property taxes, compel tax code restructuring, lead to greater government efficiency, and establish a plan to reduce Maine's overall tax burden.

At the heart of the proposal is a mandate that requires the state to live up to its promise to pay a full 55 percent of K-12 education, as has been the intent of the law for years. Last year, the state ponied up just over 43 percent of total cost of K-12 education, says MMA's Geoff Herman, who presented the plan to the audience in Monson.

The difference amounts to about $200 million in available funds for Maine's cities and towns, says Herman, enough to give municipalties breathing room with their mil rates, thus providing taxpayers with some well-needed relief.

The education funds mandate would, Herman says, force Maine lawmakers to make the changes in tax code structure that many committees, panels, and tax experts have backed for years, such as broadening the outdated sales tax to include more services, and grading the income tax so the highest rate does not kick in at such a low income. Both moves are designed to control the wild ups and downs in state revenue that fuel the rising property tax burden.

Also included in the plan is a revenue-sharing system in which 2 percent of the K-12 appropriation would be set aside for distribution to school districts as a reward for the efficient delivery of services. A twin fund would be set up for efficient municipalities. This aspect of the plan, Herman says, would "lubricate" interlocal agreements that have a tendency to fall victim to territorial squabbling.

Lastly, the MMA's proposal directs the legislature to adopt and develop a comprehensive tax burdenmanagement plan. MMA feels the tax burden problem in Maine is a complex one with many overlapping issues that need to be seriously studied. The comprehensive plan would set up a process of analysis, identification and integration for all aspects of Maine's and other state's tax burden to find what measures are or would be successful here.

Many municipalities across the state have voiced their support for the MMA proposal, and at least two local selectmen boards, Dover-Foxcroft and Greenville, have signed a resolution backing the act.

But some wonder how realistic and prudent it is, in the current state budget environment, to force the legislature to come up with more money to send to Maine schools. After all, the MMA proposal does not clarify how the state would raise the extra funds.

The MMA, Herman says, feels that it is the responsibility of the lawmakers to make the changes in the tax structure that would allow the state to properly fund K-12 education, as is the intent of the law. The tax code changes needed to address the problems with volatility and imbalance, Herman stressed, are well-known, and, in any case, should be debated in the proper arena.

"We believe the specific tax code changes should be decided in the broader public dialogue of the legislative process," says Herman.

Some feel that it is foolish for the MMA's plan to place the responsiblity for reform directly in the hands of lawmakers, the very body whose neglect MMA themselves say led Maine to this point in the first place. Brownville Town Manager Sophie Wilson applauds the MMA for bringing the issue of tax reform to the public, but she is concerned that the passage and implementation of the proposal would quiet tax critics without addressing the deeper issues of tax reform.

She feels the few actual mandates laid out in the plan would be easily reached by shifting, not restructuring, the tax burden, and is wary toward putting responsibility in the hands of the legislature.

"Even with the best of intentions, they can fall flat," says Wilson.

MMA has been holding information sessions all over the state, and will continue to bring its message to Maine's voters. The organization will be at polling booths in November to collect more signatures on the way to the 50,000 names it needs to get the initiative on the 2003 ballot.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.