How do the 2009 marriage and town taxes campaigns echo in 2014 Maine politics?

Bangor City Hall l Photo credit: Brian Feulner | BDN

Bangor City Hall l Photo credit: Brian Feulner | BDN

Benjamin Franklin may have said that two constants in life are death and taxes but, for Maine in November 2009, the big issues for voters involved a social issue — marriage equality — and town taxes.

And these still echo today, but in different ways.

On town taxes

In 2009, Mainers cast their ballots on (yet another) TABOR proposal, promoted by Republicans and anti-tax groups. If it had passed, TABOR would have put extensive limits on the process for making municipal budgetary decisions and would have led to big cuts in what towns and cities could spend on their needs.

During the campaign, firefighters came to my door and urged a vote against it. Some school districts explained to voters the consequences of TABOR for education funding, in part by delineating what happened to Colorado post-TABOR.

Now Maine is engaged in another issue involving municipalities and taxes. Towns and cities are trying to restore revenue sharing, so that a sufficient amount of the money from sales taxes sent to Augusta is returned and local services can be maintained.

As Bangor City Council Member Ben Sprague explained two months ago:

Bangor generates $1.2 billion in taxable sales each year. According to state statute, approximately $5 million of the tax revenue from these sales is meant to stay in Bangor annually.

There is a purpose to revenue sharing: It is money meant to limit the tax burden on city property owners. Bangor has used this money for vital and necessary infrastructure projects and to assure that our increasingly stretched police, fire, and EMS personnel have the resources they need to do their jobs. Plus, we have used municipal revenue sharing funds for exactly the types of projects and services that promote economic development.

Augusta this year has cut our portion of revenue sharing to just over $2 million despite statutory requirements — and there is a chance more cuts are coming next year.

The Maine Municipal Association is carrying this message to Augusta as well.

When Maine voters considered TABOR in 2009, they rejected the proposal resoundingly, 60-40%.

Now, it’s certainly true that the specifics of 2009 and 2014 policies vary and entail different tradeoffs. Moreover, state tax policies have changed since 2011, making policy contexts complex.

In recent years, post-recession years, aid to municipalities has fallen and, as Emily Shaw’s research shows, towns responded with a mixture of reduced and restructured spending, additional debt, and increased revenues.

But, with the parties trying to get voters to accept their view of who is responsible and revenue sharing decisions yet unresolved, political consequences are not predictable.

Still, no matter when, Mainers generally value the services towns provide and are sensitive to property tax increases. Thus today’s revenue sharing issue, which also has significant implications for towns and municipalities, will likely weigh on voters’ 2014 decisions.

Marriage and other social issues

2009’s ballot also involved another controversial issue — marriage equality.

I was reminded of this campaign after watching the film “Question 1,” now available for streaming from Netflix.

As the film reminds us, the issue was highly polarizing. The Maine Legislature, largely on party lines, had passed a marriage equality bill. Nearly all Democrats voted for it and nearly all Republicans voted against it. (This partisan division on gay rights issues continued nationally and in Maine.) It was then signed by Gov. Baldacci.

Opponents of the law gathered signatures for a People’s Veto campaign, on which they were to prevail 53-47%.

During the 2009 campaign, one opponent of marriage equality referred to what would happen if gay men and lesbian wed as “counterfeit marriages” and a visiting pastor from out of state said the devil was behind the push for same-sex marriages.

In the film, the ads on “teaching homosexuality in schools” were acknowledged by the pro-Question 1’s campaign director as hyperbole. And that campaign used strategist Frank Schubert’s playbook, which had been earlier employed in California for the Proposition 8 effort. Schubert’s team was deeply involved in Maine and, on election night, Mr. Schubert announced his side’s win.

Marriage equality was later enacted in 2012 after an extensive on-the-ground effort to talk to Maine voters, and that issue is now behind us.

But in 2014, social issues, not surprisingly, still remain. These are expressed far more subtly than in 2009. But that does not mean that they’re politically unimportant.

Social conservatives continue to be an essential part of the Maine Republican coalition, which also includes moderate and libertarian elements.

Because Maine is not a socially conservative state, appeals to social conservatives today must be relatively muted.

However, they have been seen in the “religious freedom” bill introduced in the Maine Legislature that would have allowed discrimination against LGBT people.

The proposed 2014 Maine Republican platform also includes social conservative positions, including — still — the statement that marriage is between a man and a woman, as well as other provisions. The relevant section of the proposed platform reads:

VII. The family is the foundation and strength of a stable society; therefore the government should not interfere, but rather support and protect the integrity and rights of the family:
A. Promote Family values;
B. Marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman;
C. Parents – not government – are most capable and responsible to make decisions in the best interest of their minor children, including medical, disciplinary and educational decisions;
D. We believe in the sanctity of human life – from conception to natural death;
E. Discontinue using state taxes to fund abortion or activities that run counter to the sanctity of life:
F. Support faith based family resources. [source]

Gov. LePage’s recent visit to an anti-Roe v. Wade rally was also a way of signaling to this segment of the Republican party that their views are important to the governor. Besides speaking about abortion, the governor also said, “Children need two parents. They need a father, and they need a mother.”

And so, while the issues of 2009 are in our rear view mirror, some version of them remain part of today’s Maine political landscape and will matter in the 2014 campaign, along with the critical issues of jobs, the economy and health care.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.