Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The plebiscites: There are three referendum questions all Maine voters must consider on Election Day.

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Question 1: A people’s veto seeking to overturn a law imposing tax on beer, wine, and soft drinks to help pay for the Dirigo Health Insurance Plan.
A “yes” vote supports overturning the law; a “no” vote supports keeping it. The law, enacted this past spring but not yet in effect because of the petition to overturn it, is touted by proponents as preserving Dirigo Health — a state-created insurance program that offers a taxpayer-funded subsidy to help the uninsured get health coverage. The plan serves roughly 12,500 Mainers, but those numbers are dwindling. New enrollments have been barred for more than a year because the plan does not have enough money to cover more people. And the number of uninsured people in Maine has not changed substantially as a result of the program (see “Illusion of Progress,” by Al Diamon, October 10, and “Baldacci Raids the Cookie Jar,” by Lance Tapley, October 17).

Unless it is rejected on Tuesday’s ballot, the law would change how the plan is paid for, reducing the amount that health-insurance companies pay and filling the gap with a new tax that would cost consumers three cents per 12-ounce beer, one cent per glass of wine (five cents per bottle), and four cents per 12-ounce can of soda. If it is rejected, lawmakers will likely have to find another way to pay for state-subsidized health-insurance.

Question 2: A citizen initiative to allow a casino in Oxford County.
A “yes” vote allows establishing a casino; a “no” vote would block it. The law that’s being voted on would, among other provisions, give Olympia Gaming, a Las Vegas company, a 10-year monopoly on casino gambling in Maine; reduce the legal gambling age from 21 to 19; and absolve the casino from all criminal and civil liability.

Of the casino’s gross income (after paying out to winners), 39 percent would go to various state programs, some of which already exist (such as biofuel research at the University of Maine, the state university system, and gambling-addiction treatment programs), and some of which do not (such as a project to investigate an east-west highway in Maine). Under the bill, the casino’s president would hold a voting seat on the board of every state or local agency supervising the spending of that money, including the UMaine board of trustees, the Land for Maine’s Future board, and even the Oxford County Commission (see “Beatin’ the Odds,” by Al Diamon, October 17).

Olympia has promised to spend at least $112 million developing a large casino-resort-hotel, likely somewhere in the town of Oxford, roughly an hour’s drive north of Portland. They say they would employ roughly 900 people, with an average annual salary around $35,000, and would send $69 million to the state each year. State estimates suggest the state would get closer to $41 million, but there is no guarantee of any of those details contained in the law itself.

Question 3: A bond issue of $3.4 million for improvements to drinking-water and wastewater-treatment systems.
A “yes” vote authorizes the bonds; a “no” vote would prevent them from being issued. One of several such bonds floated in the past few years, this would add more money to existing state “revolving-loan” funds, from which municipalities and water districts can borrow to upgrade their facilities, including treatment plants and pipes, with the intent of providing both cleaner drinking water and discharging cleaner effluent from sewage plants. Authorizing these bonds would bring in $17 million in federal matching funds.