GUEST COLUMN

‘Me first’ leaves too many behind

Posted June 01, 2011, at 10:18 p.m.

At some point, the anti-government sentiment that drives so much of the political discourse today will create such dysfunction that our economy will grind to a halt.

There is a real and legitimate debate about the proper size of government and its role to play, but we’ve reached a point where some of our friends and neighbors act as if no level of taxation is appropriate.

The demand for reduced taxes is the answer to every problem — the national deficit, unemployment, slow business starts. It is also the goal of every public policy (except perhaps for health insurance reform where it’s OK to tax people to pay off insurance companies).

And when the economy begins to improve, as it is now, cutting taxes, especially for Republicans, is more important than investments in access to health care, education, innovation or roads and bridges.

In Gov. Paul LePage’s current budget proposal, which is currently being considered by the Legislature, he has recommended roughly $200 million in tax cuts which mostly flow to people with the highest incomes.

To pay for it, he would raid the pensions of state workers and teachers and take health insurance away from 28,000 Mainers while reducing access to medicine to nearly 41,000 seniors and adults with disabilities.

Meanwhile, we know that when it comes to having a low tax burden on new business investment in the state, Maine comes out on top.

I am concerned that ideas that were once considered fringe are gaining more traction, and it’s discouraging.

A friend of mine forwarded me an email conversation concerning a local school budget vote in his community.

The email’s author proposes doing away with publicly funded K-12 education and replacing it with user fees.

“Quite frankly I am fed up footing the ‘educational’ bill for kids I don’t know or care about. It’s time their mommy’s (sic) and daddy’s (sic) take there (sic) overreaching sticky fingers out of my pocket and the pockets of those who don’t use the schools.”

This worldview is shortsighted.

It ignores that businesses — over and over again — say that an educated and skilled workforce is key to a healthy economy.

It ignores what should be a common goal of preparing the next generation of Mainers for success.

Such a me-first attitude is willfully ignorant of the fact that government, and the taxes it collects, go toward a wide variety of services that knit our communities together, drive our economy and protect public health and safety.

Whether it’s through direct expenditures or tax breaks, the government supports and incentivizes all sorts of activities and behaviors. And I don’t suppose there’s a single person who agrees with them all. I surely don’t.

For example, Maine forgoes revenue of nearly $6.6 billion every two years in tax breaks. Some, such as the sales tax exemption on groceries, are broad and affect everyone. Others benefit very few people. For example, about 50 dentists receive special tax treatment for their military pensions.

Likewise on spending.

I think the relatively small amount Maine spends on public broadcasting is money well spent.

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network is the only statewide broadcast service we have. It provides important news, educational programming and entertainment to anyone who wants to tune in, regardless of their individual ability to pay.

Other expenses might not impact me as directly, such as spending on roads in Aroostook County or the Port of Eastport. But I recognize the value to others.

It’s all part of a grand bargain we make, where we agree that we have an obligation to one another and to our communities.

Our communities function because we are able to work together for shared goals and common purposes. When it comes to the specifics of what those goals and purposes are, there is much less consensus.

When health care, public education and the promises we’ve made to teachers and state workers are placed on the altar for sacrifice in the name of arbitrary tax cuts, the fabric of our communities will fray.

People will unnecessarily be pitted against one another. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are better choices.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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