Why Are Mainers Mad About Taxes?
Pity John Baldacci. Our poor governor had to stand up there last night and deliver his final State of the State address in the depths of a recession that has blown a half-billion-dollar hole in the Maine state budget. And during this address — in order, presumably, to forestall lawmakers from throwing their shoes at him — he had to recite the ritual promise, required now of elected officials at every level of government, that no matter what happens, no matter what draconian cuts are required in government programs and services, he will never, ever consider a tax increase.
Raising taxes — even raising the issue of raising taxes — is the third rail of Maine politics. (I'm not sure how well this metaphor works in a state with minimal public rail transit. Perhaps I should say that raising taxes is the chainsaw kickback of our civic discourse.)
It might be worth asking, at this point, whether our reflexive tax-aversion makes any sense.
Former governor Angus King — a more telegenic fellow whose time in office now seems carefree by comparison — managed to hit the nail, or the rail, on the head back in 2003, shortly after leaving office. In an interview with Public Broadcasting's David Brancaccio, King said: "People have never liked taxes. I mean let's be serious. But what's happening, as I observe, is a rising sense of entitlement. Everybody wants the government to take care of whatever ails 'em. And people expect the goodies, the roads paved, the schools, the Medicare drug benefit, but at the same time, they vote for tax caps. And I never have been able to figure that one out."
He went on to recount a little encounter he'd had while riding his Harley through rural Maine. He stopped for gas at a general store and, going inside to pay, was greeted by the lady at the counter with the words: "Ah! The tax man!" ("I can live with that," King said dryly.) As he was leaving, the lady asked him where he was headed. "Down south, down the road," he said. "Good," she told him. "I hope you have a bumpy ride. Maybe you'll fix the road!"
King summed it up nicely: "So she didn't wanna pay the taxes, but she wanted the road fixed. And nationally, that seems to be where we are."
Seven years later, that's still where we are — despite the disaster wrought by the tax-cutting frenzy of the Bush era, and despite the fact that, here in Maine, the burden of state and local taxes has declined in recent years (from a high of 13.8% in 1997 to 12.3% in 2009). We Mainers — and I include myself — want our roads fixed. We want our schools to run smoothly. We want police to come when we call them. We want a quick and polite response when we contact some government agency. We don't want to drive fifty miles and wait in line for three hours to renew our driver's license.
But we don't, under any circumstances, want to pay more taxes to make this happen. We don't want anybody — not even the guy with the big compound right on the ocean — to pay more taxes. We don't want to talk about anybody paying more taxes. We even manage, in a logical contortion worthy of Sarah Palin, to blame our bad roads and shrinking DMV on the same folks who (in our fevered imaginations) are clamoring for tax increases. They are the Government, and they are evil.
Imagine if we ran our household budgets this way. Earn less money! Buy a bigger plasma screen!
Actually I suppose many of us do run our budgets this way. Hence the avalanche of bankruptcies and foreclosures. But anon.
In all the morning-after commentary on the State of the State — very little of which touched upon the issue of taxes at all — the lone voice of reason seemed to belong to House Speaker Hannah Pingree. While praising the governor for being "realistic," Pingree had the moral and political courage to voice concern over the practical effect of our bizarre refusal to consider generating more tax revenue to bridge the budget gap. "There are strong concerns," said Pingree, as reported in the Bangor Daily News, "about the potential impacts of cutting health and human services programs for the disabled and elderly."
She didn't come right out and advocate raising taxes. The closest she would get was to say, "For all of us, everything is on the table."
That's a start.