Government out of balance

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News.

While sometimes only pie will do — pumpkin, blueberry or even chocolate peanut butter — very rarely does it make sense to, as Governor’s Restaurant urges, have dessert first. In this season of celebration (and overeating), it may seem cantankerous to say so, but balance is best for our health.

Maine’s politics is out of balance. Told we have a crisis that requires severe cuts, we can change course from what Gov. LePage defends — tax cuts first.

Tax cuts were part of the June budget passed 124-9 in the House and 29-5 in the Senate. As this paper reportedthen, while LePage said he “signed the budget because of the tax cuts,” lawmakers “rejected a LePage proposal that would have eliminated MaineCare benefits for parents who earn between 133 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level and for childless adults.”

Although the budget reflected the views of Maine’s Republican majority, after passage, House Democratic LeaderRep. Emily Cain said, “We might not agree on everything, but compromise is never perfect. Today’s vote shows how far we’ve come. It demonstrates that if we honor and respect the process, we can come to agreement.”

Yet now the governor places tax cuts “first.” Although the Legislature provided funds for seniors in assisted living, low-income children in HeadStart and health care for tens of thousands of low-wage working people, the governor would slash them but retain all tax cuts.

“Tax cuts first” is the policy of other new Republican governors and nearly all congressional Republicans. As activist Grover Norquist described it, tax cut after tax cut will achieve the goal of getting government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

This national playbook also includes making it harder to vote and defining others, dividing to attack. In Maine and elsewhere, that has meant going after teachers, the unemployed, union members, college students and evenpeople who work on behalf of the needy.

The poorest 20 pecent in Maine pay the highest percentage of their income in taxes, but we’re told that they’re not taxpayers. The cuts hit working people with low wages whose jobs lack health insurance but they are stigmatized with the welfare label and their work rendered invisible.

Long-sought political agendas are being pursued while Maine people’s health is at stake.

For just one part of Maine’s health care system, the cuts would be devastating. According to an analysis by the Maine Primary Care Association, the 19-clinic network of federally qualified health centers, or FQHCs, across the state would be severely undermined. Providing preventative and primary care, “FQHCs have been shown to save Medicaid 30 percent in total annual spending per patient due to reduced hospitalizations and avoided ED visits.”

Some patients receive MaineCare, others have Medicaid, 175,000 pay on a sliding scale and and all are at risk. Cuts will lead to layoffs and “translates to the closure of four service delivery sites.” Other program cuts will undermine educational opportunity and health, create cost-shifting and, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, reduce Maine jobs by 4,400.

But there are alternatives. Income tax cuts could be deferred or limited to, say, up to twice the Maine median income. According to the Maine Revenue Services, the LePage income tax cut is $2,810 for the top 1 percent (who have average earnings of nearly $355,000), while the middle 20 percent receives $123 and the bottom 20 percent a mere $7 a year.

Under this tax regime, with 20 percent cut from the Circuit Breaker program, many less-than-wealthy Mainers will end up with increased overall taxes. Tax cuts to estates over $1 million dollars, adding up to tens of millions of dollars in the next biennium, should be dropped. And health policy stressing provider coordination can save money and improve Mainers’ health.

Making tax cuts come first is a moral choice. As Bishop Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland declared, “How we treat the most vulnerable in our society, where we place them in terms of our priorities, is ultimately the measure of the worth of our society.”

Maine’s legislators, who sought balance six months ago, must decide where Maine now stands.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.