To the Editor:
Government is not efficient and doesn’t have to be—not as long as cost can be ignored.
Maine citizens are so highly taxed in comparison to other states that we are a frequent contender for the title of most highly taxed. Our state government, our municipal and our county governments, like jackals feeding on a carcass, extract, on average, somewhere around 13 or 14 percent of our income. These taxes could be reduced and government could be made efficient, but it would require a citizen’s initiative to throttle funding.
When I consider taxes, three thoughts come immediately to mind: the first is that some of that tax money is spent foolishly and, of course, this is also the second and the third thought. If our lawmakers were limited in their tax collection to 10 percent of our income, including any cost for collection, then foolish spending would, if not eliminated, be at least reduced.
Our lawmakers are, if nothing else, creative and inventive; they could do this. But, because they are so creative and elusive, we would have to carefully define that a tax doesn’t have to be called a tax to be one. Fees, surcharges, administrative costs, even licenses are taxes by other creative names. These would all have to be included within the 10 percent.
An appropriate definition of a tax might be any money a citizen has to give up in response to a state or municipal law. Our lawmakers motivated to maximize tax revenue through reducing collection costs might eliminate unnecessary licenses and fees.
There is a large and obvious candidate for improved efficiency and reduced costs. The tolls collected on the Maine Turnpike aren’t called taxes, but they are. Toll revenue pays for Troop G of the state police, and a portion of the tolls goes into the state’s General Fund.
Although the Maine Turnpike Authority’s new director, Peter Mills, is making the Turnpike Authority more efficient and more accountable, it still remains a wonderful example of an inefficient tax collector. Consider that while the Turnpike Authority annually collects $100 million in revenue, it costs somewhere near $12 million to collect tolls.
The turnpike has additional expenses and freely spends money with a fire hose. The recently constructed administration building cost $11.9 million. The estimated cost to construct a new toll plaza at York is usually estimated to be about $34 million, but is sometimes estimated as high as $56 million. The new service plaza in Gardiner cost $11.4 million. Obviously, the Turnpike Authority spends a lot of money in relation to the tax revenue it collects.
The Turnpike employees some 470 employees; the majority of these, somewhere around 300, are toll collectors. These toll collectors and the other employees are treated like state employees and belong to the Maine State Retirement System. They can retire at age 60 or after 25 years of service. Their retirement is a continuing expense.
Compare the collection of tolls to the collection of the fuel taxes imposed upon gasoline and diesel fuel. This fuel-tax money is collected from about a dozen fuel distributers, who each write the state a check for the taxes due on the fuel sold. These check writers are not state employees, and they do not receive retirement or other state employee benefits. This is an efficient tax-collection system.
Since it costs so much to collect tolls, suppose that we make the Turnpike a free highway. It would only be necessary to replace the lost revenue. This could be recovered by increasing the fuel tax, perhaps by as much as 25 cents a gallon. It doesn’t cost any more in collection costs to collect a half dollar per gallon in taxes as it does to collect a quarter dollar per gallon: it only requires the check writers to change the digits on the checks.
I know motorists will grumble about the higher cost per gallon for gasoline—and I will be among them. But there will be an overall reduction in the taxes collected.
With a free highway, toll collectors will be unnecessary and they can be employed more productively. Aye, there’s the rub; we would be putting 300 or more people out of work. But continuing to pay them to do unnecessary work would be welfare.
I believe that as we reduce taxes, the additional money left in taxpayer pockets will ultimately be spent and will accordingly produce more jobs. If we are doubtful and still insistent that we don’t want unemployed state workers, we would be better served to give them wheelbarrows and shovels and put them to work building an East-West Highway or some more worthwhile public project.
There is a perpetual and persuasive argument in favor of continuing to collect tolls, and this argument should be addressed. The argument is that 40 percent of the Turnpike tolls are paid by people from away. The argument continues that since tourists use and impose wear upon our highways, they should share in highway costs.
If the state gasoline tax is doubled, then tourists will certainly share in contributing to the highway fund. Perhaps they would contribute more than being levied a single toll when entering the state and another toll when leaving.