Will Maine Vote on Tax Reform?
60,473 petition signatures now sit in cardboard boxes in the offices of Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Dunlap's staff will soon be checking each one to determine if enough are valid to put the new Democrat-backed tax reform law on hold and place a veto referendum of the legislation on the June 2010 primary ballot.
The legislation, which seeks to lower Maine's income tax and broaden the sales tax, has become a controversial issue and a rallying point for all three of Maine's recognized political parties.
Democrats and a few Republicans (including gubernatorial candidate Peter Mills) insist that the law will decrease overall taxes paid by Mainers and make the state more attractive to business. They cite Maine Revenue Services figures showing that taxes paid by Maine people will be reduced by $57 million and that 87 percent of taxpayers will see their taxes decreased, with out-of-state tourists picking up the slack.
The Republican Party argues that certain groups will still potentially see a tax increase, and that increasing the range of the sales tax simply gives the state more ways to raise taxes in the future. They also say they don't believe that the income tax will stay low.
The Green Party opposes the law for the opposite reason. They believe that taxes under the new law are too low for those with high incomes compared to low-income Mainers and that the state will now have a regressive flat tax on income.
As the debate has played out, opinions have hardened along partisan lines. A rejection of the law would now be a clear victory for the GOP (and to a lesser extent the Greens) and a blow to the Democrats.
But how likely is the issue to come to a vote at all? That depends on whether or not 55,087 of those 60,473 signatures are deemed valid.
One way to predict whether the 5,350-signature margin will stand up to official scrutiny is to look at how referendum petitions have fared in the past
In the graph below, I've charted the referendum petition drives conducted in the past ten years* (if I missed one, let me know). For these twenty-two referendum drives, only two (the school funding referendum in 2003 and the forestry referendum in 2000) had a smaller number of signatures rejected than the margin for this veto referendum. For comparison, the tax reform petition and margin numbers are represented on the far left.
Things don't look much better for the veto's chances when you compare these campaigns by percentage of valid signatures (which is the best way to make this kind of comparison). The average percentage of signatures rejected is 16.84 percent and the tax reform veto has only an 8.85 percent margin of error.
However, according to a statement made by petition organizer Sen. David Trahan to the Bangor Daily News, his campaign has already worked with town clerks to cull unregistered voters from the petitions and the 60,473 signatures represent “clean, certified signatures.”
If this is true, it lowers the bar quite a bit. Here's a graph with signatures invalidated by municipal clerks removed and showing only those signatures invalidated by the state for each referendum:
As you can see, the 5,350-signature buffer is now much closer to the middle of the pack of the usual number of rejected signatures.
The same holds true when looking at percentages:
The average rejection rate from the state alone is 7.27 percent, slightly below the veto referendum's margin of 8.85 percent.
So, it all comes down to how clean these petitions really are. This was a people's veto, so the signature gathering timeframe was necessarily shortened. The other two veto referendums in the past ten years had a slightly higher signature rejection rate than the average, but a smaller percentage of their signatures were rejected by the state than for other initiatives, so it's hard to draw any conclusions about the effect this may have.
Previous referendums on the issue of taxes have had a much higher rejection rate than the average petition campaign, but this may be due in part to the signature gathering methods employed by Carol Palesky in her 2002 and 2004 tax cap attempts, so this comparison also isn't very helpful.
The best determinant of whether or not these petitions will clear the bar is likely the methods that were employed to gather the signatures.
According to GOP chair Charlie Webster, a large number of the signatures were gathered by a coalition of Maine “working people,” including “auto mechanics, truck drivers, and plumbers” who had been politically uninvolved before the petition drive. It's likely, however, that the majority were obtained by seasoned political activists and paid signature gatherers.
Many of the signatures were gathered by Republican politicians. Rep. Lance Harvell gathered signatures door-to-door and at the Skowhegan Fair. Rep. Sally Lewin says she collected more than 3,000 signatures from petition sheets left on “the counters of small businesses throughout the Seacoast area” (I'm not sure how the witnessing was done for those sheets).
One interesting petition gathering moment was captured by the Journal Tribune, when they reported on two Democratic state representatives urging voters not to sign a petition being circulated by Los Angeles resident Darryl Bonner outside of the Saco post office.
Bonner said he was being paid to gather signatures (which were being witnessed by a Maine voter) but declined to give the name of his employer. A quick google search for Bonner shows him to be a professional signature gatherer who has worked on contract all over the country. In at least one case, during a slots petition drive in Washington, D.C., Bonner was apparently accused of engaging in petitioning fraud.
Some Democrats during this petition drive accused petition circulators of having lied about the bill to get signatures. Rep. Seth Berry went so far as to submit a bill for consideration during the next session which would allow people to remove their names from petitions if they feel the initiative in question was misrepresented.
So, depending on who you ask, the signatures either came from enthusiastic amateurs or seasoned professionals, based on a campaign of lies and money or of passion and heart. The possible effects of all these differing categorizations on the signature rejection rate is enough to make your head spin.
If the measure does make it to the ballot, one thing is sure, it will have been because of the Maine Green Party's help. In a thread on AMG, petition organizer Steven Scharf estimates that the Greens gathered 9,000 signatures, well more than the veto's margin of error.
Ultimately, we'll just have to wait and see whether these signatures pass muster, and with the Secretary of State's office busy preparing for the November election, we may have to wait longer than usual. Dunlap estimates that the verification process will take at least long enough to delay the implementation of portions of the law that would have gone into effect Oct. 11.
A lot is riding on the outcome of the count. If the referendum does make it to the ballot, it will share space with the June 2010 gubernatorial primaries, likely making taxes more of an issue in that election. If the referendum is rejected, the Maine Republican and Green parties will have spent time, money and effort on a failed cause that might have been more effectively used to promote their own candidates. Not to mention all the people and businesses of Maine, who are waiting to see exactly what taxes they'll be paying next year.
*The equal marriage veto is not included in these calculations because the Secretary of State stopped counting signatures after a sufficient number were found to be viable. For the 2009 health insurance initiative, I used the number of signatures rejected for the usual reasons, ignoring the fact that all the signatures were thrown out due to the use of an improper form. In all cases, I used the information provided by the Secretary of State that best helped to illuminate the current situation.