I write today to share with you my views on the upcoming referendum question known as TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights).

It is no easy task to sift through the mountains of data and opinions on this subject before us. The theories are complex, the explanations at times confusing and too often the views seem contradictory. Reflecting on this issue, I find that I personally have too many doubts and concerns about the short- and long-term effects on the people of Maine, and therefore must vote no. Allow me to go over how I came to this decision.

Catholic teaching on taxation policy is not voluminous; to the contrary, little is said about specific tax policy. However, there is a long established history of teachings on the principles that should help guide our economic structure. Pope John Paul II in his writings tells us that the merits of any particular system of taxation must be judged prudently in light of its impact on the human community. He speaks about economic policy as a tool, and not as an end in itself, that can serve to liberate us from the constraints that deny us our ability to fully participate in society, seek meaningful work, support our families, obtain needed health care, and the like.

The writings of the popes and the Catholic bishops reiterate the common themes of fair taxation; that is, taxing everyone in terms of their ability to pay. The critical question in Pope John Paul’s writings is whether a tax oppresses the poor, unduly burdens the middle class or unfairly advantages the wealthy. Another repeated theme is “the preferential option for the poor.” Our faith teaches us that we are to put aside our own desires for the material things in life in deference to the needs of the poor. In today’s society, the needs of the poor go beyond those of the beggar on the streets and include those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves on the margins of society, struggling to meet life’s basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, etc.

As I reflect on these Catholic principles, and in particular on the concept of the common good and the preferential option for the poor, I believe our concern should be focused on outcomes, or possible outcomes, of this proposal. There is little doubt in my mind that those who propose this policy and those who oppose it are operating from equally good intentions. Many of those who support the proposal do so because they believe that it will lower taxes and control excessive spending. Many of those who oppose it do so because they are concerned that it will lead to dangerous reductions in public safety, education, and the dismantling of our government’s “safety net” of social services for the poor.

It is ultimately a question of burden versus benefit. Will the benefits gained for the individual taxpayer outweigh the burdens to our society as a whole? Will our commitment to the common good of the people of Maine be compromised? Will the proposal bring relief to those who need it most and result in a more equitable distribution of burden across the various income levels?

I understand clearly that the tax burden for many working families in our state is creating serious hardship, particularly for the elderly, who struggle to make ends meet and stay in the family home. Relief for them and others who struggle unfairly is long overdue. I do not, however, feel comfortable that TABOR is the best vehicle for redressing the flaws in our system.

The matter before us is serious and has moral and ethical consequences for all people of our state. First among the many things we must consider in arriving at our own decisions is the answer to these overriding questions: How would passage of this referendum affect the common good and not merely our own personal good? Is passage of this referendum consistent with the obligation that society maintain a preferential option for the poor?

I urge all of you to study the issues before us and apply sound moral and ethical principles in arriving at your best judgment as to what is right and best for our state.

The Most Rev. Richard J. Malone is the Bishop of Portland.

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