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Forecaster Forum: DHHS move from Portland to South Portland reflects respect for taxpayers

Opinion

Forecaster Forum: DHHS move from Portland to South Portland reflects respect for taxpayers

After years of steady growth in state spending, all branches of state government are exploring ways to reasonably save money and still effectively run state programs.

The most recent example is the LePage administration’s proposal to relocate the state welfare office from Portland to South Portland.

Rent is going up at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Portland location, and moving to another building in the next city over will save $14 million over the life of a 20-year lease, or $700,000 of our hard-earned tax dollars every year.

Almost instantaneously, however, the hue and cry of some politicians and the alphabet soup of welfare lobbying organizations turned this common-sense move into a controversial one.

They complain that it will take longer for some Portland welfare recipients to visit the DHHS office using public transportation. But two-thirds of the people who use the current office live outside the city of Portland. For those within the city, the Metro bus service has indicated that it is ready and able to adapt to changing demands for routes.

One of the reasons the rent is going up at the current Marginal Way location is because new business tenants are interested in the area. This is a good development involving new jobs and much-needed economic activity. It’s a reality that should be embraced, not rejected in favor of the status quo, which for far too long has been marked by an inter-generational dependence on public assistance.

Even local Democratic pundit Ethan Strimling has defended the administration’s process for making the switch, pointing to the fact that preference was given to Portland locations in the bidding process. Ultimately, however, the South Portland location still made more sense.

Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond and other Portland state lawmakers are understandably concerned about safeguarding jobs in their districts, but nobody is in danger of losing their jobs, and it’s important that we do the best thing for the state as a whole.

Political posturing does nothing to steer us toward better welfare policies that allow us to balance the needs of the taxpayers with the cost of a state welfare system that now has some of the lowest eligibility requirements in the nation.

Over the past few years, Gov. Paul LePage has put forward many common-sense reforms to save money at DHHS, while preserving services for our neediest neighbors. That’s because he recognizes that something needs to be done after decades of allowing our welfare system to grow to an unsustainable level.

Over the past 20 years, welfare spending in Maine has doubled, even though the poverty level has remained constant. DHHS now claims almost half of our state budget, placing us second in the nation for welfare spending. We have expanded Medicaid several times to the point where it has doubled as a share of the state budget, crowding out funding for education and other important services, and we face massive deficits as a result of its growth.

Fiscally minded legislators have enacted or proposed several cost-saving measures, including making Maine the 44th state to put a five-year lifetime cap on TANF cash welfare benefits, stiffening penalties for welfare fraud, enacting a residency requirement for benefits, preventing food stamps from being used to buy junk food, and requiring able-bodied welfare applicants to apply for at least three jobs before receiving benefits.

These are all measures that the vast majority of Mainers agree on, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, Green or Independent. Unfortunately, partisan Democrats opposed each and every one of them.

The concerns expressed by welfare lobbyists regarding bus services to the new location can be adequately addressed, and the benefits to the move are substantial to hard-pressed Maine families who are already some of the most heavily taxed people in the country.

In fact, a legislative panel recently recommended slapping new taxes on everything from haircuts and movie tickets to vending machines and gym memberships in order to balance the state budget in the face of a $200 million welfare-induced deficit at DHHS.

State government has got to start thinking about the taxpayers when it makes decisions such as whether to move the Portland office or pay an extra $14 million. Thankfully, leaders like DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Gov. LePage are recognizing the importance of balancing the needs of everyday working Mainers with the growing cost of our welfare system.

State Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, serves on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which provides oversight of the Department of Health and Human Services.