January has only just ended, but it has already been a tough winter for many Maine families. We continue to suffer through a difficult economy.
Gas and home heating costs are high, jobs are scarce, wages and salaries are stagnant, and many of our neighbors are struggling. The extreme measures proposed in Gov. LePage’s supplemental budget threaten to make life much tougher, more dangerous, and very costly for thousands of Maine children and families.
The short-term savings contained in the proposal are not only reckless and cruel, but also fiscally short-sighted, both shifting costs and adding to long-term budget problems.
In a press release accompanying the state’s “Race to the Top” application to the U.S. Department of Education, Gov. LePage stated: “Guaranteeing children a solid educational foundation before they begin kindergarten is the first crucial investment we as a state can make in a future work force that will drive economic growth in Maine.”
I agree, yet the budget proposal does not match his good words.
The governor’s budget proposes the total elimination of state funding for Head Start, a favorite of President Ronald Reagan and a proven tool to improve the health and education of children in low-income families. Smarter and healthier children become more productive adults, and, importantly for budget discussions, reduce long-term costs for schools, hospitals and jails.
Head Start currently covers about 30 percent of eligible children in Maine. The governor is taking us in the wrong direction.
The Maine Center for Economic Policy has estimated that more than 4,000 jobs would be lost if the governor’s budget proposals are adopted. Not included in that grim calculation is the potential job loss associated with proposed child care cuts.
During the welfare reform debate in the 1990s certain facts were recognized. Among these was that the high cost of child care is a critical barrier to employment for low-income workers and recipients of public assistance. Without child care subsidies, the math just does not work for low wage earners. A single parent taking home $400 a week, but spending $200 a week on day care and $40 a week on gas, is simply not going to make it. Parents will be forced to choose between their jobs and the safe care of their children. Either way, kids lose.
The proposed elimination of MaineCare for 65,000 Mainers — including health care coverage for 29,000 parents and more than 7,000 young adults — would only deepen our health care crisis, increase health costs by forcing emergency room care, and diminish public health. Children whose parents have health care are also healthier, again saving costs for the long haul.
The focus on health care for childless adults has been especially harsh. Many of these people have disabilities, cancer and other serious health conditions.
Like many, I was heartened by the governor’s focus on domestic violence in the State of the State address. Yet, eliminating health coverage for tens of thousands of our neighbors chokes a key access point in the struggle against violence. Doctors and nurses are trained to diagnose the signs of domestic violence, but they can’t help those they can’t see.
Reasonable budget discussions examine all spending and revenue. The current proposal focuses only on one department of state government. Cuts in DHHS will have very real, negative effects on spending in education, public safety and corrections. A larger examination of state priorities is always in order, including tax expenditures. The governor’s tax cuts enacted last year also merit reconsideration, especially as the bulk of those benefits are enjoyed by the wealthiest among us.
Internal administration documents indicate that increased utilization of DHHS services is not the root of the budget problem, and that recent management decisions are largely responsible for the current mess. One thing is certain — kids did not cause this problem. Unless the Legislature stands up and does the right thing, children and families in Maine are going to suffer more.
Ned McCann is vice president of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization in Augusta.