Our elected officials are laser-focused on the issue of jobs, and that is as it should be. Without putting people back to work, Maine cannot fully recover from this economic crisis. In addition to growing jobs, we must also protect workers who are on the cusp of losing them.
Maine’s educators, health care and community service providers, and municipal and state employees are the backbone of our communities. Maintaining these jobs will help families, communities and our economy to thrive.
Recent polling, as reported by The Washington Post and Bloomberg, shows that jobs and unemployment continue to be the No. 1 concern for Americans. Thirty-eight percent of Americans polled stated that the most important economic problem is jobs, while only 10 percent were most concerned about the national deficit. These numbers fly in the face of those who claim that overwhelming pressure to act on the deficit is preventing them from supporting critical jobs legislation while our economic recovery hangs in the balance.
The truth is that Maine people know these investments are critical to Maine’s recovery. That’s why more than a hundred people gathered in lobsterman’s park in Portland earlier this month to call upon Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to pass the jobs bill.
Our senators helped to pass an important part of the jobs bill when they voted to extend vital unemployment insurance benefits. We applaud them for standing up, once again, for Maine people. Unfortunately, Congress has yet to pass another significant part of the jobs bill that is greatly needed to protect jobs and stimulate Maine’s economy; that is the extension of federal aid that Maine is counting on to help keep people employed and our state on the right path.
Economists and policy experts across the country have sounded the alarm about the potential disaster to our fragile economic position if Congress turns its back on states like Maine, which faces a gaping budget hole. Vital state aid that was included in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is set to run out at the end of the calendar year.
Before passage of the Recovery Act, the U.S. was shedding 20,000 jobs a day. Job losses have stabilized, but today millions of Americans nationwide are still out of work.
States are still heavily dependent on two pieces of federal aid — federal matching funds for Medicaid, known as FMAP, and an extension of the Education Jobs Fund. Normally, FMAP is used to supplement the state programs to allow states to balance their budgets and pay for essential jobs and services.
But both FMAP and the Education Jobs Fund extensions are stalling in Congress, and states are slashing programs as a result. The Center on Education Policy recently reported that the fast-approaching end of federal economic stimulus money means 75 percent of the nation’s school districts plan to cut teaching jobs in the 2010-11 school year.
Without further federal aid, Maine will have to close a projected $85 million budget gap with brutal cuts to essential services. It is likely that at stake is critical funding for laboratory and X-ray services, outpatient hospital visits, inpatient hospital stays, mental health outpatient therapy, and affordable prescription drugs for state seniors and people with disabilities receiving both Medicaid and Medicare.
Nationwide, cuts like these could cost the economy hundreds of thousands of jobs in the next year. Earlier this year, 43 governors, including Gov. John Baldacci, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader John Boehner, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell requesting immediate passage of the six months of enhanced federal matching for Medicaid to maintain services and stabilize the economy. This step is crucial, and Mainers are waiting for this relief.
Extending federal aid to states is a critically important requirement to help prevent cuts that would devastate Maine people and allow the state to protect jobs and develop services rather than scale them back.
Congress should not stall any longer on passing legislation that the majority of U.S. governors have specifically requested. This funding is necessary to bring us back from the brink of budgetary crisis and untold harm to Maine people.
Sara Gagne-Holmes is executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners. Sarah Standiford is executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.