Here's the simple truth about Maine's automobile excise tax: If you don't support the initiative on the November ballot to cut it sharply, we're all going to die.
Let me repeat that as calmly and unemotionally as possible.
WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!! DO YOU HEAR ME, YOU FOOL?!!? DIE, I TELL YOU, DIE!!!!!!
Sorry. Got carried away.
Of course, even if you don't vote to reduce the excise tax, we're still all going to die. Despite the whining of both rich and poor whenever they have to cough up the cash to register their Beemers and beaters, there's no casual relationship between mortality (100 percent likelihood of croaking) and the state's fiscal policies (100 percent likelihood of being wrong).
You're going to pay taxes one way or the other, unless you can prove you're dead. To do that, you'll need to show up in person at your municipal clerk's office with at least two forms of identification, one of which has a recent photograph and is signed by a board-certified pathologist.
For those who can't qualify for this post-mortem tax break, there's little to get excited about among the tax-cutting and tax-reforming plans on the November ballot and (possibly) up for a vote next June, none of which addresses the fact that, no matter what happens, the living are going to be taxed.
The only real questions are:
And how much?
The only sensible answers are:
As simply as possible.
And as little as possible.
While no individual referendum question gets us closer to those goals, if you combined a couple of them, you might have the framework for an uncomplicated and inexpensive tax system. Of course, that would take some effort, and by the time it happened, you'd probably be dead.
Here's how it could work.
If voters approved the resurrection of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) in November and rejected the possible people's veto of the tax-reform law that may come to a vote in June, the state would have a lower income tax (although, not low enough), a broader sales tax (although, not broad enough) and a spending limit in place to prevent these taxes from being turned into automatic teller machines to pay for future legislators' impulse purchases.
Trouble is, I seem to be the only living being in the state who's in favor of both TABOR and tax reform. I haven't polled any dead voters on the subject (although I could ask gubernatorial candidate Peter Truman about the opinions of the deceased, since in the past, he's gotten several of them to sign his public-financing forms), but I suspect they're of much the same mind. Although slightly more decayed.
For some reason, spending limits and tax reform mix like Diet Coke and Mentos, like Kevin Youkilis and Manny Ramirez, like Catholic bishops and same-sex marriage. Republicans hate tax reform because it doesn't reduce taxes. Democrats hate spending limits because they reduce spending. Green Independents hate both of them because, well, they're Greens, so they don't need reasons.
But the two concepts ought to match up like a shot and a beer, like Tom Brady and Randy Moss, like pro-family politicians and extra-marital affairs. Tax reform spreads the pain of paying for government more fairly. Spending limits prevent that pain from exceeding bearable levels. Without both, life would be, well, pretty much the way it is now.
Which, as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, is "nasty, brutish and short." Sort of like Governor John Baldacci's budgets.
There is, however, another tax measure on the ballot this fall, the one I alluded to above that reduces the excise tax. Cities and towns use this tax -- which must be paid before registering your car -- for road maintenance. Faced with a substantial reduction in that source of income if this measure passes, municipalities would have to let the roads deteriorate or raise property taxes to make up the shortfall. Neither alternative is attractive.
Supporters of this measure are quick to point out that there's a third possibility: reduce municipal spending. All Portland has to do is not fork over $1.8 million to build new housing for three firefighters near the city fireboat, and it could cover about half its loss. Admittedly, the rest of the state's municipalities might have a more difficult time coming up with over $80 million in cuts, at least until they receive all those savings promised by proponents of jail and school consolidation. (I just noticed that the preceding sentence makes it appear as if jails and schools were merged. That wasn't the case, although, now that I think of it, the idea has merit.)
As a practical matter, voters in most of Maine's cities and towns won't want to lose $80-million worth of police, fire, and public-works services. They'll cast their ballots in favor of raising taxes, thereby negating any small benefit derived from cutting the excise tax. For them, it would probably be simpler to leave things as they are.
Somebody else can fix this mess after they're dead.
Let me know when the wake is by e-mailing email@example.com.