Saturday, December 7, 2013
Blethen Maine News Service
AUGUSTA — A coalition that wants to overturn a tax increase on beer, wine and soda turned in more than 90,000 signatures Tuesday to the secretary of state in an effort to force a vote in November.
The Fed Up with Taxes coalition, which includes the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and beverage distributors, gathered far more than the 55,087 signatures needed to qualify for a referendum. In all, 74,533 signatures have been certified by local clerks as valid.
The secretary of state has 30 days to validate the signatures. But both sides agreed that even if some signatures are thrown out, there will be more than enough to put the ''people's veto'' on the ballot.
The coalition is asking voters to overturn a state law passed earlier this year that instituted the taxes as a way to pay for Dirigo Health, the state's health insurance program. The taxes, along with a fee collected on insurance claims, are necessary to fund the program, supporters say.
Newell Augur, a beverage industry lobbyist who leads the coalition, said the debate should not focus on the future of Dirigo.
''This has nothing to do with Dirigo,'' he said. ''This has to do with our tax burden. How Dirigo is funded is a completely separate argument from that.''
Dirigo supporters say the ballot question would threaten the future of the program, which was approved by lawmakers in 2003 as a way to provide health insurance for small businesses or those who are self-employed. The program covers about 18,000 people.
''We're going to continue making the case that access to health care for Maine children and families is on the line,'' said Jennifer White, president of Health Coverage for Maine, a political action committee that opposed the signature-gathering effort.
The issue has divided small-business owners. Some say they need Dirigo to provide insurance to their employees, and others say they cannot afford increased taxes on beer, wine and soda.
In Waterville, state Sen. Lisa Marrache, a Democrat, and her husband, Eric, both physicians, threatened to quit the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce over the group's decision to collect signatures for the petition.
The deadline for turning in signatures to force a referendum is Thursday. The Maine Constitution gives citizens 90 days from the end of the legislative session.
Andy Charles, president of the Maine Merchants Association and president of Haven's Candies, said in a prepared statement that the voters have a chance to send a message to lawmakers about taxes.
''It's now or never when it comes to delivering a fed-up message to the governor, the current legislature and legislative candidates,'' he said.
The taxes are meant to be collected at the wholesale level, but if they are passed along to consumers, it would raise the cost of soda by 11 cents a liter and 4 cents a can; the cost of a six-pack of beer by 16 cents; and the cost of a standard bottle of wine by 7 cents.
In addition, the law imposes a new tax on syrup used to make soda and a 1.8 percent tax on insurance claims.
Senate Majority Leader Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, said it will be good for all citizens in the state to debate the merits of the beverage tax.
''If the repeal is successful, there will be a loss of (health) coverage for thousands of people,'' she said. ''There are a lot of important health care questions we'll have an opportunity to think about and talk about.''
Megan Hannan of the American Cancer Society said the repeal movement seeks to undo the effort to make health insurance more affordable for younger people. She anticipates a major campaign on both sides.
''Mainers, by and large, believe in fairness, and believe people who work but don't get health insurance deserve access to it,'' she said.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said businesses are concerned about any increases in their costs and are particularly sensitive to taxes.
''I do anticipate a vigorous campaign,'' he said. ''I expect a very serious campaign.''