Mon, Sep 01, 2014 ●
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Policy Wonk: It's time to end LePage's pursuit of the poor

Opinion

Policy Wonk: It's time to end LePage's pursuit of the poor

Paul LePage took an Ax,
gave state employees 40 whacks.
When he saw what he had done,
he gave the poor 41.

(With apologies to Lizzie Borden)

It began before the ink was dry on the Gov. Paul LePage's inaugural budget address. Aided by a Republican Legislature, a needless plan to cut teacher and state employee retirement benefits was enacted.

Its purpose, ostensibly, was to close budget gaps and meet unfunded retirement commitments. In reality these benefit cuts were used to pay for $150 million in tax cuts that overwhelmingly went to taxpayers earning more than $350,000 annually. This at a time when the average annual pension income of Maine teachers and state employees was $18,500 and Maine’s median household income was $46,000 annually.

The governor moved on to labor negotiations with state employee union groups, whose contracts expired in June, 2011. The largest union group, the Maine State Employees Association, represents more than 10,000 people. Budgetary exigencies had frozen salaries (they ultimately remained frozen for four years), halted merit salary increases, and imposed unpaid shutdown days as a budget balancing mechanism.

The negotiations dragged on for two years, until a new two-year contract was agreed to in July 2013.

State workers got very little: wages were increased 1 percent in the first contract year, another 1 percent in the second year, merit pay was reinstated, and the state dropped efforts to strip union fair-share provisions from the contract. But average state wages in many job categories remained below private-sector wages, and the salary increases were well below cost of living increases (borne during four years of wage freeze) and anticipated future COL increases.

LePage then turned his full attention to the poor.

He cut low-income circuit-breaker property tax relief in his first budget. In his most recent budget the circuit-breaker program was replaced altogether by a far less generous low-income property tax relief program. Budgeted amounts for low-income childless adults were cut by $40 million, while low-income working parents, with incomes (for a family of three) barely above the poverty level, are no longer eligible for MaineCare coverage.

Warming to the task of pursuing the poor, a variety of MaineCare services – eye exams, chiropractic visits, smoking cessation programs, in-patient hospital stays, access to prescription drugs, etc. – either saw their budgets cut or the frequency of patient access to these benefits reduced. Assistance to asylum-seeking immigrants was cut; and temporary assistance to needy families are now in many cases subject to arbitrary time limits, sanctions (which can extend to children if a parent is not in full compliance with program rules), and in some cases, drug testing.

The single most damaging action, however, is LePage’s refusal to allow Maine to participate in the Affordable Care Act. It harms both the poor and the state’s economy; 70,000 low-income Mainers are cut off from the benefits of health insurance, and millions of federal dollars will not be poured into Maine’s economy.

LePage narrowly carried the day on this issue in the last legislative session. A second effort to allow Maine’s poor to obtain ACA benefits is now before the Legislature. Whether this element of the governor’s pursuit of the poor continues, or is curtailed, remains to be seen.

Beyond his budget cutting and his refusal to meet the needs of the poor, the governor’s verbal denigration of the poor is appalling. His constant refrain of “fraud,” “fraud,” “wolf,” “wolf,” with respect to a wide range of low-income assistance programs, is a calculated lie. If his assertions were true there would be countless prosecutions. The jails would be full of those who abuse the system.

They’re not, because, in fact, there is very little welfare fraud in Maine. LePage’s rhetoric is little more than a witch hunt – a scapegoating of the poor. What he really wants is to cut many of them adrift.

Is this who we are? Is this what the majority of Maine people really want? I doubt it. It’s time Maine people ended this callous pursuit of the poor. The result of current legislative debates with respect to the ACA will be telling. If the Legislature opts to participate in this federal program, that’s an important first step, but only a first step. More of LePage’s mischievous pursuit of the poor needs to be undone by carefully drawn and adequately funded legislation that meets the real needs of real (handicapped, elderly, and low-income) Maine people.

If the governor again prevails – if Maine’s participation in the ACA is again blocked – there is even more work to be done. This is an election year. We must find through the ballot box a governor and a Legislature that are as good as I believe Maine people are.

And we must remember that Maine’s initiative process is available to address issues, and correct wrongs, in settings where the people are far ahead of their elected leaders.

Good luck to us.