The Cost of Going to Hell

Posted Oct. 01, 2010, at 2:03 p.m.

Saying you’ll tell the president to go to hell plays well with anti-Obama audiences, but it isn’t a fiscally prudent strategy for a would-be governor of a state that gets significantly more money from the federal government than it pays in.

At a fishermen’s forum last weekend, Republican Paul LePage said: “As your governor, you’re going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page, saying ‘Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell.’”

Aside from the lack of self-control and integrity shown by such a remark (days later he told a TV anchor he was “about ready to punch” one of her colleagues), it is simple pandering. Of course, some fishermen — and many others — want to hear a candidate say they’ll tell the federal government to go away. What they want is fewer federal regulations.

They, and Mr. LePage, will have a harder time letting go of the federal dollars that come with those rules and regulations.

According to The Tax Foundation, Maine ranked 13th nationally for its receipt of federal funds in 2005. That year, Maine received $1.41 from the federal government for every $1 of federal taxes paid by the state’s residents and businesses. New Mexico ranked No. 1, getting $2.03 for every tax dollar sent to Washington. Mississippi and Alaska weren’t far behind. New Jersey and Nevada received the least.

Maine received $8,629 per person in 2005, the last year the foundation compiled these rankings.

Fiscal conservatives will say the state should just forgo the money because the less taxpayer money spent by the government the better.

But which money will they turn back? Federal Medicaid payments, which totaled more than $2 billion in the last fiscal year? The vast majority of these payments go to service providers, nursing homes and hospitals. These entities care for the sick and injured across the state, providing thousands of jobs at the same time.

How about not taking federal dollars for education — roughly $341 million in 2009-2010? Schools, already struggling to pay bills, will be further in the hole, causing more of them to close.

Transportation funds? In this area, the state received more than $300 million from the federal government last year, about half of it for road and bridge work. Companies in Maine and that do business with the state already complain that poor road conditions here waste their precious time and money. If road and bridge maintenance is further deferred while the state tries to come up with the money to pay for them, the business climate will further deteriorate.

Fewer research dollars for the state’s universities? In 2010, the University of Maine received $76 million in federal research funds. Forgoing this money, which will lead to new businesses and jobs in Maine, isn’t prudent.

Subtract the federal funds — the list above is only partial — and the more than $800 million that would evaporate if Mr. LePage succeeds in lowering the income tax rate to 5 percent as promised, and the state’s current shortfall of $1 billion over the next two years looks relatively small.

Many LePage supporters say they like the Waterville mayor because he tells it like it is. He might start telling Maine how he intends to lower taxes while rejecting billions of dollars from the federal government.

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