CONTRIBUTORS

Maine women wearing a budget bull’s-eye

Posted March 23, 2012, at 2:53 p.m.

Many working families, and particularly those headed by women, are in serious jeopardy.

Gov. Paul LePage and his administration continue a dangerous push for policies that will make life tougher for families who are already struggling to get by. And they’re doing it in a way that undermines the ability of the public do get involved or for the Legislature to carefully consider the implications of his irresponsible plans.

As a former legislator and chairwoman of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, I can attest that the late stage of the legislative session is always grueling. It’s human nature to leave the hardest decisions for last. Hours are long, tempers are short and the feeling of being cooped up during lovely spring weather doesn’t help.

But this year it’s different. There appears to be a coordinated strategy by the governor to introduce major policy changes at the end of the session.

Consider this: the session began early with hearings in December on a stop-gap budget to address a shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget. The Maine Women’s Lobby testified that the budget seemed to target women, with proposed cuts to family planning, child care, Head Start, health care for working parents and services to the frailest elderly.

Gov. LePage repeatedly blamed fraud and overly generous welfare benefits for cost overruns, and suggested that he would cut funding for both K-12 and secondary education and nursing homes if his proposed cuts weren’t adopted. He even ordered DHHS officials to stop answering questions from lawmakers.

Appropriations Committee members soldiered on. They agreed on a short-term compromise package that unfortunately eliminated health care for approximately 14,000 working parents. Days later, the administration acknowledged that the cost overruns were caused in part by a computer error, an error they were aware of but had not disclosed. That mistake will likely result in a need to repay the federal government an as-yet-undetermined sum of money.

Now comes the governor’s second supplemental budget, just released. It includes irresponsible changes in the tax code that aren’t paid for, even while it continues the assault on the weakest among us by substantially reducing funding for General Assistance. The governor is putting his tax giveaways on a credit card and he’s telling working families, the elderly and the poor to pay for it.

Meanwhile, the state Senate made things worse this week by approving LD 849, which would provide tax breaks to those at the top of the income bracket, costing the state an estimated $600 million with no real plan to pay for it.

This is simply irresponsible, and no way to make decisions that will impact Maine and its residents for many years to come.

Women head up the majority of households in Maine with children under 5 living in poverty, and Maine’s child poverty rate surpasses the national average. Further, women are more likely to work in insecure, low-wage jobs and lack health insurance, flexibility or paid time off. Women live longer than men, and because we earn less over our lifetimes, are more likely to live in poverty in our old age.

And, because women are more likely to be single or custodial parents and are more likely to experience poverty, homelessness and food insecurity, these policy and spending decisions have a particular impact on them.

In order to thrive as a state, we need a healthy populace, a strong education system, and a well-maintained physical infrastructure. Yet throughout the session, instead of focusing on preserving proven strategies that will enable our state to emerge from our current challenges, the LePage administration has chosen to focus on punitive and short-sighted measures. And, unfortunately, the Legislature has more often than not chosen to follow suit.

Again and again, the Maine Women’s Lobby has stood up against proposals that make it harder to earn a living and support one’s family all during the great recession — when we’d expect our lawmakers to be creating jobs, not punishing those who lack one.

Now, in the very last weeks of the session, leaders need to use the limited time remaining to make informed, thoughtful decisions that balance our budget while laying the foundation for a better future.

Maine can — and must — do better.

Eliza Townsend is executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Women’s Policy Center.

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