TABOR and the Washington Monument Ploy in Maine

August 19, 2009

A hot issue in Maine right now is a proposal for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). TABOR, a type of legislation that currently exists only in Colorado (and was actually temporarily suspended by voters in 2005), is a tool that limits the spending growth in a state to inflation plus the growth in population. However, TABOR does allow for tax increases, as long as they are approved by voter referendum. In 2006 TABOR was proposed and closely defeated in Maine in a voter referendum. The latest version, dubbed TABOR II, will appear on the November ballot.

The issue has heated up recently as the group TABOR Now has accused state Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan of acting improperly by using her state email account to send information to state officials in an attempt to raise opposition to TABOR. In the email she says that funds designed for families of deceased law enforcement officers might have to cease paying benefits if TABOR II is passed. She wrote that “From a public policy standpoint, I think it is appalling that Maine would deny these very necessary benefits. Our law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs put their lives on the line for Maine citizens every day.”

TABOR Now says this is an example of “rampant and unethical abuse of power” from a state official trying to influence the vote on TABOR. Whether this is an abuse of power is a legitimate and important question. But the issue I want to get at is the actual claim that Jordan makes in the email. The email is a clear example of the Washington Monument ploy in which public officials faced with the possibility of spending cuts respond by threatening to end the most popular and sympathetic program under their control. The name comes from when the National Park Service threatened to close the Washington Monument, the most popular in DC, if its budget was cut. The tactic is a favorite of bureaucrats and politicians. The hope is that when lawmakers and the general public learn of the beloved programs that would be completely eliminated, the talk of spending cuts will quickly disappear, and it often works.

If we take the statements seriously, and we assume that Jordan has the public interest in mind, then she is saying that benefits for the families of deceased officers are the most preferable cut (or the least valuable spending, from society’s perspective). Either that or she is admitting that she does not have the public interest in mind. I don’t know which it is. I also don’t know what the least valuable spending is in Maine

But as the “Washington Monument” name suggests, this is just a ploy designed to distract lawmakers and the public from making real (and admittedly, sometimes difficult) spending and tax decisions. The public and lawmakers need to be able to work on a limited budget and prioritize their spending to maximize public welfare. In an op-ed in the Kennebec Journal the mayor of Waterville, Maine’s thirteenth largest municipality, explains how he worked with the City Council to reduce waste, improve efficiency, preserve (and in some cases increase) services, and increase cash reserves, all without raising taxes. Here is what Mayor LePage had to say:

In only six years, we invested $3 million in city road repairs, including some state roads that Maine’s Department of Transportation could not afford to maintain. We also built a new maintenance facility and salt shed, which our Public Works Department found necessary to deliver a safer, cleaner community for residents.

Together, the council and I also found opportunities for greater efficiencies in city government. We signed a contract with neighboring Winslow to share the cost of a fire chief and consolidated city departments to streamline costs and preserve services. We consolidated the number of city departments from 15 to four, without cutting services. This consolidation effort allowed us to reduce the number of taxpayer-paid city employees from 130 to 114, saving Waterville taxpayers more than $600,000 annually.

Achieving these results was not a quick and easy process. It required a close examination of how the city operated, and the council and I spent countless hours poring over the books to identify opportunities to save our residents money. But we accomplished our goals, relying on hard work and a commitment to responsible spending and tax relief.


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