Desperate times and drastic measures

By Matthew Gagnon,
Posted Dec. 08, 2011, at 3:03 p.m.

Extremis malis extrema remedia: The desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy. So said Guy Fawkes a day after the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

Maine faces a desperate disease, and Gov. Paul LePage has — to the consternation of many — chosen a dangerous remedy in seeking to disqualify roughly 65,000 Mainers from MaineCare.

But let’s not kid ourselves here, the giant sucking sound you hear is a black hole — a $221 million budget black hole — and it needs to be fixed, and immediately. No matter what we do to close this gap, the remedy is going to be painful.

If we don’t want to do what the governor proposes, so be it, but there is no easy way out of this mess and the other options are just as bad, if not worse. Pretending there is an easy solution is self-delusion.

I think most of us would agree that the responsibility of government in such difficult economic times is to protect our most vulnerable residents while providing an environment that will make for a strong recovery. We need to not only to protect the weak, but ensure their ability to become strong.

The governor’s gambit is both a political and a policy risk. LePage is trying to fundamentally realign his state from dependency to self-reliance, and if he can’t make that transformation, he — and Maine — will be in significant trouble.

Social services are wholly dependent on the wealth of Maine residents. When people have jobs and are making money, we pay into the government’s coffers and can finance charitable benefits.

When employment contracts, that money dries up. Having generous social services — and make no mistake, Maine does — without the economic base to pay for it is fundamentally unsustainable. Apropos, the LePage plan.

The governor’s plan attempts to solve the problem by slashing MaineCare benefits to be in line with the national average. But this kind of technocratic move only deals with half the problem. Wealth must be created for us to afford our social services.

The economy is not a pie to be sliced between residents. There is no set amount of wealth we have to distribute between ourselves. Wealth is created by people producing things of value. Mainers need to have the ability, option and incentive to work if they are to escape the shackles of government dependency.

Maine is up against a lot. With the advent of free trade, the United States — and Maine — has seen its industrial capacity vanish as much cheaper international labor markets consume that capacity.

Protectionist America could insulate labor competition by instituting tariffs that made it unprofitable to “ship jobs overseas.” But now we live in a new world where we have to compete with countries that pay their workers pennies a day and keep them in horrid working conditions.

We need to find ways to make ourselves more competitive, and make it worthwhile to start and grow businesses in Maine.

There is no alternative. Whithering tax receipts coupled with disproportionately abundant benefits (at least, compared to other states) is creating a fiscal death spiral. The only way to truly get out of this mess is to grow.

I watch as states such as South Carolina attract companies like Boeing, while states such as Washington push them away. Companies want hardworking, quality American labor and they are willing to pay for that quality, but only until it becomes too expensive to be competitive.

That’s why they leave, and we are left with idle hands and diminished productivity. Maine is a very expensive place to do business, and that needs to change, and change quickly.

Government must protect and care for those who can’t protect and care for themselves. Cutting dependency will only work if we simultaneously provide an opportunity for the formerly dependent to control their own lives.

The only way the governor’s plan will be humane is if Maine can find a way to bring its people back to real and lasting employment.

For those who can work, an opportunity must be given to do so, otherwise such cuts become immoral and wrong. Maine lawmakers now need to focus intensely on providing that opportunity.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/12/08/opinion/contributors/desperate-times-and-drastic-measures/ printed on September 21, 2014