May 19, 2008

Maine: Any Tax is a Bad Tax?

A few years ago, Maine had grand visions of providing affordable health insurance for all its uninsured residents by 2009. But five years after the creation of its Dirigo health care program, funding remains so low that even the first year’s goal of providing insurance for roughly a quarter of uninsured Mainers is very far off. The program is quite popular, especially among small businesses, but Maine simply refuses to raise taxes broadly in order to pay for it. Instead, enrollment has been capped in order to keep costs down while thousands of uninsured Mainers on the waiting list hope for an acceptable source of funding to be found.

Faced with the self-conflicting demand for better health coverage without significant tax hikes, Maine legislators earlier this year considered a fifty cent cigarette tax increase as a way to modestly expand its health program. Broad, progressive, and sustainable tax increases were still out of the question given the political climate in the state, but legislators realized they may be able to raise a smaller and less important tax. Despite being starkly regressive, cigarette taxes have become an extremely popular revenue source among states since they tend to be less controversial than hikes in income, property, or general sales taxes. But having already doubled its cigarette tax in 2005, Maine policymakers soon had to back down from this idea.

The legislature, to its credit, didn’t give up completely in its effort to find funding with which to expand health care coverage. The debate then turned toward another relatively minor tax - alcohol and soda taxes. The argument was made that these products should be taxed more heavily because of their link to higher health care costs, but the more salient reason for the proposal was undoubtedly its perceived political feasibility. Rather than making the hard decision to raise taxes broadly in order to meet the goal it set for itself five years ago, the legislature tried to take the easy way out.

But in Maine, apparently any tax increase isn’t so easy. In response to the tax hike, the “Fed Up With Taxes” coalition was formed, consisting largely of restaurant owners and other related business interests. The coalition is already collecting signatures at restaurants across the state in hopes of getting a repeal of the tax on the ballot.

Despite proceeding so cautiously in search of a revenue source that wouldn’t get them into too much trouble with the voters, the end result of this legislative session may ultimately be a failure to find any way to secure additional funding for the uninsured.

This sudden challenge to the beverage tax suggests that the blame for the lack of funding for the Dirigo health plan should not be placed on legislators – but that the root cause of this embarrassment is instead a refusal on the part of voters to take responsibility for paying for programs they believe to be worthwhile. Across the country the clear preference has been for lower taxes and better government services. These two demands cannot be reconciled, and their interaction has helped contribute to both the national debt and to the avalanche of fiscal problems at the state level.

Too often, voters unwilling to accept higher taxes point to cutting “wasteful spending” as the source of revenues from which favored programs should be enacted or expanded. While wasteful spending certainly does occur, it’s likely not of the magnitude most believe it to be, and identifying it accurately is not a simple, uncontroversial, or inexpensive process. It’s easy to blame whatever one believes to be “wasteful spending” when revenues start to fall short, but the reality is that there’s no easy solution to funding more government services.

Taxpayers either need to learn to expect less from their government, or they need to take responsibility for chipping in to pay for government services. A failure to do these things is what led to the current situation in Maine where a heated battle appears imminent over a tax hike that in the grand scheme of things is too small to substantially improve upon the health care situation in the state. If voters ever decide that they are willing to pay what is needed for government services, the result will be a climate of debate in which sensible reform of the tax system can be enacted. That situation would certainly be preferable to the current one where minor, disjointed, and often regressive tax increases at the margin have the best chance of gaining approval.


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