All Maine Matters

August 2006



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Vol. 1, No. 8      August 2006 FREE

Open Letter to the AARP Following Taxpayer Bill of Rights “Seminar”
By Pem Schaeffer

(Author’s note: the AARP is a leading member of the “axis of opposition” to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights ballot initiative. AARP is joined with the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Education (Teachers) Association, and AFSCME, the union of state and local government employees, to do everything in their power to defeat it. Together, these organizations have millions of dollars available to crush this citizens’ movement to instill a sense of stability and control in government spending.)

Dear Mr. Dolphin & AARP Leaders:

I attended the AARP event held in June at the Doubletree Inn in Portland, ostensibly designed to educate your membership on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. I am not surprised that you tried to make your best case against this citizens’ referendum, and are looking for every opportunity to promote yours and AARP’s opinion about the legislation. I would expect that you and your group would attempt to give the referendum a negative spin. There are a lot of problems with your position when you look at the details.

Your group, and your fellow members of the “gang of 75,” hold many “informational meetings” to advocate your viewpoint to your members. You “inform” your members what you have learned about the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and why you oppose it, instead of presenting the facts and letting your members reach their own informed decisions. Quite frankly, I do not understand why you are so angry about the referendum.

At first, I found the atmosphere at your event cordial, but it soon became rather patronizing and gratuitous. I couldn’t escape the impression that AARP’s style is to talk down to the members, as if they are incompetent and unthinking “seniors” who need to be guided by AARP leaders paid to promote a particular point of view. At times I found your demeanor condescending, as if you were talking to your aged and doddering parents, instead of a group of competent, educated, and thinking adults.

I am surprised by the accusations and nasty tone of the presentations. People of good will can and do disagree without resorting to name-calling.

To begin with, after the “get to know your neighbor” exercise, you asked participants to identify those “benefits and services” provided by government (paid for by their taxes) that they hold dear. This was a prime example of “push questioning,” in which you were subtly leading the group into a predetermined conclusion previously arrived at by AARP higher authorities.

You then scrupulously avoided leading the attendees in a critical thinking exercise to extend the process and examine all sides of the issue. After the first “question,” in which participants named their beloved libraries, home health care, trash collection, prescription drugs, “oil,” meals on wheels, and other “public services” as their priorities, you should have asked:

Discussing these vital points would have provided useful and thoughtful insights, and counterpoint to simply listing typical government services.

Inexplicably, you chose not to provide a balanced discussion encompassing both supporters and opponents of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, even though you had been offered a knowledgeable supporter for your events. Instead, you invited only Kit St. John from the MECEP, who earns his living defending Maine’s destructive status quo, and the continuous economic decline it has wrought. This alone is enough to demonstrate that educating your membership is not your first priority, but instead, is driving members to arrive at your foregone conclusion through a group-think process..

Let’s examine briefly why the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is on the ballot. Maine’s economy has been widely recognized as struggling and anemic by a number of authoritative sources.

Alarmingly, census data shows that demographic trends in Maine are dreadfully negative. Our youth, who should be building careers, families, and futures here in their home state, are leaving in record numbers to seek opportunity elsewhere. We have growing state debt and unfunded liabilities, and per capita state and local taxes have grown by 25% in the last 6 years, according to the Maine Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review. Examining this set of realities should be of a much higher priority for AARP members than libraries, etc, if Maine seniors want a secure future, and their family living in this state as well.

You showed an anti-Taxpayer Bill of Rights video produced by the CBPP, the founding force behind the MECEP here in Maine, which Kit St. John heads. It showed a number of individuals who complained about the negative effects of the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights. The video failed to mention that voters in that state, after approving that provision, subsequently approved an education funding mandate that was in direct conflict.

Let’s be honest about the video; it is expensive produced, and slick and artful propaganda. On the other hand, for every grievance in that video, there are young people leaving this state to find lower taxes and economic opportunity elsewhere. For every complaint, there are seniors who can no longer afford to live in their homes because of constantly increasing property taxes and other burdens that result directly from state and local policy. For every grievance, there are Mainers choosing to live elsewhere and declare residency in more welcoming states. For every complaint, there are businesses closing down, moving out of state, and choosing not to expand in Maine, depriving the state of jobs and economic health.

Importantly, Colorado’s circumstances are a flawed and weak basis for argument against the Maine Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which is substantially different. Colorado’s plan limits revenue growth, causing a “ratchet down” effect in lean revenue years. Maine’s plan avoids this by limiting spending growth instead, thereby avoiding the ratchet down syndrome.

One of the primary arguments the video made against the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is that governments buy different things than taxpayers, and that items government buys go up faster in price than the CPI. The direct presumption is that we, as taxpayers, see only CPI proportionate growth in our living expenses, while government sees far higher growth. I take vigorous exception to such claims.

Here are some reasons why. Our health care premiums have increased by over $900 a month in the last 4 years, and our office visit co-pay has gone from $5 to $25 in the same period. Our heating oil bills have tripled in the last 8 years. Our gasoline bills have more than doubled in the same time frame. Our property taxes have increased by nearly 50% in that period. Our school teachers have a current contract that gives them raises ranging from 11%-25% in a two year period, and we are all “buying” their salaries and extremely generous benefits.

Quick calculations will show that each of these items has grown at rates that make the CPI largely irrelevant. Further, these expenses are critical, or in the case of property taxes, confiscatory by force of law. I’m confident that any senior attending your session could quickly have taken pencil and paper and personally disproved this specific claim in the video, if only you were objective enough to lead them in that exercise. They could easily have come up with personal spending cuts they’ve had to make, I’m sure, in order to pay for these major increases.

For some reason, opponents focus only on so-called “hard choices” government and elected officials have to make, completely ignoring the agonizing daily choices made by those who pay for continuously growing government spending, often from fixed or inflexible incomes. Perhaps the next time your group meets, you could ask for individual testimony from attendees, and engender the same kind of sympathy for individuals-real people-instead of promoting sympathy for impersonal and detached governments.

Opponents, including the AARP and others, love to talk about cuts, cuts, cuts, that will be caused by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. I have been following state and local politics long enough to know that the word “cut” is purposely and horribly abused by government growth advocates. Most often, any reduction in annual growth in a budget item (for example, lowering the increase from 15% to 10%) is called a “cut.” That’s like saying you’re losing weight because you were gaining 5 pounds a month, but you’re new diet has you gaining only 3 pounds a month. Or that you were hoping for a 10% raise n salary, but your employer only gave you 6%, so therefore your salary was “cut.” This is clearly abuse of plain English to serve political purposes. Furthermore, the Maine initiative doesn’t call for cutting anything, anymore than LD 1 and its so-called spending caps do.

Now that I think of it, perhaps you can tell me why our leaders (and no doubt the AARP, MECEP, and others in the “gang of 75”) see their LD 1 spending caps as “historic,” yet similar concepts proposed by the public are labeled “meat-axes” and “dangerous?” Could it be that the LD 1 “caps” have no teeth, and therefore are of no real concern to those who would ignore them, like the Governor has?

The essence of the Maine Taxpayer Bill of Rights is simply that our elected “public servants” must exercise choice in managing public budgets; just as private citizens who pay for government must as we manage our personal budgets. Furthermore, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights provides for overriding scheduled limits, when deemed necessary, and increasing tax revenue, by making a case to the public and gaining voter agreement. This is flexibility we as private individuals don’t have; we can’t go to the voters for an increase in our salaries or pensions or nest eggs.
As the election approaches, I am sure that many people will engage in debate with you and your group, hopefully with a civil tone.

Thank you for publicly sharing your viewpoint with those who attended; I only wish you had done it in a format that provided all the facts and perspectives, and respected members’ ability to make their own informed decisions.

Pem Schaeffer
Retired in Brunswick, Maine
Former AARP member

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