Vote of confidence

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  October 4, 2006

Here’s a gem. A couple of weeks ago, Christopher St. John, the executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, was in Bangor arguing against passage of the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. According to the Bangor Daily News, St. John, a long-time advocate of increased tax dollars for social services, told the local chamber of commerce that if voters approved TABOR’s limits on state and local spending in November, they’d be showing disrespect for their elected leaders.

“What message are we sending?” St. John asked. “A lack of confidence in our legislators to make budgets.”

Got that right.

It’s not just that the governor and Legislature balanced the last couple of spending plans by selling off a decade’s worth of liquor revenues and trying to do the same with lottery proceeds (a plan defeated because even Democrats wouldn’t support it). It’s not just that the structural deficit for the next two-year budget is already more than half a billion dollars. It’s not just that the state has failed to fund more than $130 million worth of highway and bridge maintenance, while continuing to pour money into its mistake-riddled Medicaid computer billing system, which is currently $35 million over budget. By the way, that computer is supposed to be operating smoothly by next summer. The timetable for catching up on potholes is, um, let’s see . . . never.

The real problem is the public’s confidence deficit isn’t limited to the bumblers in Augusta.

Van Buren voters, angered by a proposed hike in property taxes, used a special September town meeting to slash the town council-approved budget by 25 percent, starting with the town manager’s salary and finishing with his Christmas bonus. According to a published account, the manager further drained the reservoir of public confidence by informing rebellious voters that only the councilors could reduce his pay, because he had an “oral contract.”

Which, as Samuel Goldwyn once noted, “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

The Bar Harbor town council knows that if it raises property taxes, its confidence rating will plummet faster than gasoline prices before mid-term elections. But rather than be content with the money they have, councilors are asking the Legislature to give them some other tax to raise, such as a local-option levy on hotel rooms and restaurant meals. That sort of tax isn’t really a burden on town residents, councilors argue, because tourists would pay most of it.

Apparently, nobody in Bar Harbor plans to eat out.

Lewiston’s elected leaders are saving for a rainy day by taxing rain. Councilors recently gave preliminary approval to slapping annual fees on property owners based on how much rainwater runs off their land and buildings. Presumably, houses with thatched roofs and dirt floors are exempt. “There is no system of taxation that’s fair or perfect,” councilor Normand Rousseau was quoted as saying by the Lewiston Sun Journal. “We are just trying to make it better, but we know we will never make it perfect.”

It’s actually sort of a confidence builder, Normand, that you admit that.

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