When it comes to taking care of the poor, sick, elderly and other vulnerable residents, Maine has a history of generosity. A case can well be made that given perennial budget shortfalls the state can no longer afford to be so generous.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the state should move to the other extreme, where people who, for whatever reason, have a bad lot in life and need help are told to “get a job,” as the governor said in February.
The governor’s proposed budget changes, along with his original budget package and other significant changes now pending in the Legislature, move Maine too far in the direction of not caring about the vulnerable and less fortunate.
“The generosity of the state of Maine has been so great over the last decade that we’ve dug ourselves a big, big hole,” Gov. Paul LePage told Capitol News Service.
Because state revenues are predicted to be $164 million lower than expected when Gov. LePage put together his first biennial budget in January and February, a revision was necessary. A major part of his proposed budget changes is to remove nearly 30,000 people from the state’s Medicaid rolls.
An estimated 12,000 parents who earn between 133 percent and 150 percent of the federal poverty level would no longer be eligible for MaineCare benefits as of January, saving the state $6 million next year and $12 million in 2013.
Eliminating MaineCare eligibility for the 16,000 currently eligible childless adults will save the state $11 million in 2012 and $22.5 million in 2013.
These people, generally, are the poorest of the poor and will have limited access to health care through other means. It is far from certain that the insurance reforms championed by Republican lawmakers will make insurance affordable to these people. They will likely join the ranks of the uninsured, which costs the state more in the long run.
The governor says he targeted this population because it was the only one the federal government gave the state permission for. That’s a weak rationale.
The new budget package would also restrict welfare benefits by prohibiting those who receive federal benefits from getting General Assistance. It would also place limits on the amount of time people can get benefits such as the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program.
On the other side of the coin, the governor has stuck to his commitment to include about $200 million in tax reductions in his budget. If the state can afford to lower tax rates and offer more tax breaks, which will mostly benefit the well-off, it is hard to justify simply cutting off the less fortunate.
There are positives in the budget change package, which was changed again Wednesday, such as restoration of funding for drug addiction treatment. And there are changes that are just punitive such as the elimination of all state funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, which was announced Wednesday.
But like the governor’s original budget plan, it relies too heavily on cuts that will harm the state’s most vulnerable in order to balance the books.