There occur certain legislative moments that clearly distinguish the competing philosophies of our state’s two major political parties. Under the banner of “structural reform,” the LePage administration and his Republican majorities in both houses have proposed Draconian cuts in such programs as Drugs for the Elderly, MaineCare for low-income parents, Head Start for needy children, and the child care subsidy that enables low-income parents to work without worrying about their children’s well-being.
From a Republican perspective, Maine simply spends too much on such “welfare” programs, certainly more than the state can afford, and Republicans point to mounting deficits incurred by the data-challenged Health and Human Services department as evidence. A down-homey assertion that the state can operate no differently than responsible families — never spend more than you earn — appeals to those who manage their own finances with Puritan finesse.
Look to how you structure your family (or state) budget and make the appropriate adjustments in spending for low-priority items. The Republicans’ low-priority item is “structural reform,” in brief a euphemism for eliminating huge areas of government support for the needy. And as the needy tend to make up a minority of the state’s population and probably are less likely to vote, impersonal cuts in government support tend not to have immediate political consequences. Add to that Gov. LePage’s own Horatio Alger story, and the attendant contempt he seems to have for people who have no bootstraps to pull up, along with the gaggle of Republicans in the Legislature who obediently follow the governor’s “moral” lead, and we arrive at the legislative moment mentioned at the outset.
Democratic Party leaders have evinced appropriate moral indignation at LePage’s “structural reform.” They are calling his “reform” for what it is — a heartless, insensitive take-away program that further dispossesses the already dispossessed. For Democrats, government’s raison d’etre is to serve the people, all people, regardless of means, knowing that taxes used well are actually public investments in the state’s residents, even while acknowledging that not every public investment will bring maximum returns. The Democrats plead in the next breath that our common humanity requires collective (government) support for individuals, simply because they are human and therefore have basic needs that should be met.
The state of California is currently working through similar issues, but its governor, Jerry Brown , a Democrat, is relying on the bully pulpit to advocate in favor of a referendum that, if successful, will impose higher taxes on the wealthy — and a .25 percent increase in the sales tax — in order to ameliorate the state’s budget woes. For good or for ill, Californians will have the opportunity to vote next fall on what kind of moral politic it wishes its state to be: a place that reduces support for the poor and for education or a society that raises taxes on the wealthy in order to sustain the moral imperatives of social welfare and education.
In contrast, LePage and his Republican-controlled Legislature have succeeded in reducing taxes on the rich and have promised to go even further if the state manages to generate a surplus of revenue over expenditures in the future. He seems to believe his “structural reform” of welfare is a necessary step toward generating that surplus. But call this for what it is: reducing public support for the poor in order to give the wealthy additional tax breaks.
Democrats tend to judge the quality of a society by how well it treats its most vulnerable residents, while Republicans judge society according to the prosperity of its business community and the societal elite. For Democrats, all residents are real people having real needs, while Republicans respect the powerful and disrespect the powerless.
The simple truth, as we all know, is that Maine is not a wealthy state; Maine is a state where poverty is evident within a five minute drive from most anyone’s home. Whatever their financial situation, every Mainer has witnessed severe poverty. It is impossible to turn a blind eye to its enervating effect on fellow residents.
The Republican leadership today seems to have violated that social compact with its egregious assault on the poor. While we will not have the sort of referendum on social values that Californians will in the fall, we will have our November elections and an opportunity to restore Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House, and to send the governor a message: a Jamaican retirement community awaits you in 2014.
Roger Bowen is a political scientist living in Prospect Harbor.