By A. Jay Higgins, Of the NEWS Staff - AUGUSTA - After maintaining a low profile as Brewer's city manager for the last five years, veteran public policy advocate Steve Bost stepped onto the center stage of Maine politics this week to lead a coalition against a statewide property tax cap.The former five-term state legislator and U.S. Senate candidate is calling on elected municipal officials across the state to not only join his campaign against the tax cap on the Nov. 2 ballot, but also to press state lawmakers for the rapid implementation of Question 1. Approved by 55 percent of the voters on June 8, Question 1 carries a whopping price tag of about $250 million to raise the state's share of education from about 43 percent to 55 percent next year.
Bost said he was motivated to launch the grass-roots coalition by what he perceived as an absence of leadership to confront the controversial cap championed by tax activist Carol Palesky. He said he also sensed reluctance among state officials to fully implement Question 1 next year.
"I believe we have a brief, four-month window to change this entire conversation," Bost said. "Palesky is viewed by many as a foregone conclusion. But I believe we can determine our own destiny on this issue. We don't want to wait for someone else to fight this fight."
Although he opposed Question 1, Gov. John E. Baldacci said last week he would respect the "will of the people" after this month's vote and work with the Legislature to reach the 55 percent goal. But the governor hedged when reporters questioned where the money would come from and how much of the 55 percent target would be reached in the 2005 fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2004. Even the Maine Municipal Association, which spearheaded the Question 1 initiative, backed away from its original demand for immediate funding of the 55 percent target. Concerned about the impact the initiative would have on the state budget - which already is facing a projected $900 million deficit over the next two years - MMA leaders said they would not oppose a four-year, phased-in strategy to reach desired educational funding levels.
"The starting point is to honor the vote and the language in the initiative clearly does not envision this as a phased-in approach," Bost said. "If the Legislature thinks it could be more easily accomplished in two years, we would want to be part of that discussion."
Baldacci has called on supporters and opponents of Question 1 to unite behind him in order to craft a coalition to defeat the tax cap. MMA officials said this week that while they would be part of the coalition, they would not assume a leading role. Later, the Maine Chamber of Commerce said it had no immediate plans to join Baldacci's coalition and would be studying the issue to develop further information.
None of those developments sounded particularly encouraging to Bost, who believes the governor and the Legislature squandered a unique opportunity earlier this year to develop a credible property tax relief program and increase educational funding. Instead, he said, inaction by lawmakers and the governor confirmed Palesky's assertions that the Legislature is unable to confront tax reform. It is a scenario Bost fears will make Palesky's promise of rolling back taxes to $10 per $1,000 of valuation appear seductively simple to voters.
"The individuals [at the State House] and the legislative process failed in this last session and it was remarkable that this was the case, given Palesky's gun-to-the-head initiative," Bost said. "We've waited for others to act and that has not worked. It's now time for us to take charge."
Rather than wait for the governor, or anyone else for that matter, to assemble a coalition, Bost and Brewer city officials assumed the lead. They announced Tuesday the city of Brewer would dedicate a minimum of 90 percent of the new revenues it receives under Question 1 directly to tax relief. Bost is now in the process of meeting with other municipal leaders to not only enlist their support for the dedication of additional revenue to tax relief, but also to join a grass-roots effort to oppose the tax cap.
"Rather than create a political action committee, we would like to try the grass-roots approach first which we believe is the best way to win against Palesky," Bost said. "Most Maine people place a great deal of trust and confidence in their locally elected officials. If they commit to lowering the mill rate with money from Question 1, I think it will demonstrate that Palesky is not needed."
Baldacci praised Bost for stepping into the tax reform debate and also welcomed all municipal officials who choose to join the Brewer city manager. In fact, Baldacci said genuine guarantees by municipal officials to direct Question 1's additional revenues to property tax relief would have influenced his position on the June 8 educational funding question. The governor's most strident criticism of the initiative was that it did not, in and of itself, guarantee property tax relief.
"If the communities are committed to make sure the dollars go directly through, I think that's a huge win for people," the governor said. "That's what they're looking for - no overall increases in the state and local tax burden and an actual decrease in the property tax burden. That's a good sign."
Michael Starn of the MMA knows Bost is an effective organizer. A former Democrat and now an independent, Bost ran Ross Perot's Reform Party campaign in Maine and later went on to become a major organizer in Perot's political action committee, United We Stand America. Starn joined Baldacci in congratulating Bost and the Brewer City Council for assuming a leadership role in opposing the tax cap, but he dismissed any criticism of the MMA for its decision not to take a leading role in defeating Palesky.
"For two years, we've been out front on Question 1," Starn said. "On Palesky, we feel that the municipal association will be much more effective as part of a unified group of associations and affected parties that will oppose it."
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