As economic and snowstorms hit us, how do we dig out?

This big storm put me in mind of what a friend, the photographer Jeff Kirlin, said the other day: “I love the sound of the Socialist snowplows scraping up my Socialist streets.” We pay taxes for government services that serve the public good — in this case, the ability to get places safely and not get stuck in some massive snow bank.

What government should do and how to pay for it is a perennial issue. But Maine people generally think well of their local governments. Attempts to make it hard for towns to fund services have been blocked by the voters.

On a lovely crisp day in fall 2009, I opened my door to find two Bangor firefighters on my porch. Had I heard of TABOR, the tax limiting plan? they asked. Did I know how TABOR would squeeze budgets so much that it would cause problems for our city services, not only firefighting but also our police, schools, recreation and street clearing?

That November, 336,144 Maine voters, nearly 60 percent, gave TABOR a resounding “no.” There were over 40,000 more anti-TABOR votes than ever cast for a gubernatorial candidate in Maine, including our current governor. In Bangor, only one-third thought it was a good idea.

Bangor’s police department, with its quirky Duck of Justice, has done a fabulous job working with the public, and the school department delivers an excellent education. Public-private partnerships, creativity, and hard work have propelled economic development.

There are real questions about how consolidation could save money.

Government, whether local, state or federal, should work as well and efficiently as possible.

That’s what makes a little known endeavor, the Obama administration’s focus on evidence in policymaking, so important.

As “Show Me the Evidence” by Ron Haskins and Greg Margolis discusses, this government venture requires those receiving grants to test programs’ effectiveness.

We all want teens to get a good start in life, but what works? As Haskins and Margolis discuss, low-income 13- to 15-year-olds enrolled in a three-year project focused on academic and job skills, arts and sports activities, and health care. Seven years after starting, 63 percent were enrolled in college, 37 percent more than a control group. Fewer got pregnant, and more held jobs. This and other programs saved money while producing results, such as less child abuse and more learning.

Government can promote economic opportunity and security. Medicare proved enormously effective in reducing poverty among the elderly. Elite universities’ presidents wanted to restrict post World War II GI Bill education benefits to top students, but the GI Bill’s generous mandate propelled millions into the middle class.

We need a way to pay for the government that works.

Zeroing out revenue sharing, as Gov. Paul LePage proposes, would especially hurt towns without large nonprofits that could be taxed. They’d have more trouble paying for everything, including snow removal.

Right now the bottom one-fifth of Maine’s non-elderly taxpayers, who make $19,000 a year or less, pay 9.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The top 1 percent, who make over $362,000, pay 7.5 percent of their income in state and local taxes.

While LePage sees states without any income tax as models for Maine, those states are even more regressive.

As the Institute on Taxation and Economy Policy notes, “No income-tax states like Washington, Texas and Florida do, in fact, have average to low taxes overall. However, they are far from ‘low-tax’ for poor families.”

“The bottom line is that many so-called ‘low-tax’ states are high-tax states for the poor, and most do not offer a good deal to middle-income families either. Only the wealthy in such states pay relatively little.”

When it comes to federal taxes, those whose wealth comes from speculative investments pay lower tax rates than the middle-class.

Not only do people start with unequal resources but that matters more than before. Fewer lower income persons move up and fewer people born in high income families drop down.

As wealth is increasingly concentrated, it’s unreasonable to believe that the people working two and three jobs to provide for their families just aren’t working hard enough.

Laid-off Bucksport workers aren’t responsible for what that hit them.

Clearing the snow from public streets is a public endeavor. Rebuilding the middle class, hit by damaging economic storms, should be, too.

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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.