With November’s state and federal elections in our rear-view mirror, Maine people can now focus on the road ahead and how we will govern ourselves for the next two years. The decisions we make will require an honest, unflinching assessment of our limited resources and a sober evaluation of competing claims for public assistance. “Let’s pretend” is not an option if we want to preserve the safety net for the truly needy.
The beauty of our uniquely American system of self-government is that there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats in our politics, only a permanent struggle to preserve the liberties secured by our state and federal constitutions. Every two years we have the opportunity to hold elected officials accountable at the ballot box and make a fresh start. As Article 1, Section 2 of the Maine Constitution puts it, we have an inalienable right “to alter, reform, or totally change” state government when our safety and happiness require it.
Many people have concluded that our state and nation are at the proverbial crossroads, that the decisions our public servants make in the next year or two will profoundly affect not just us but our children and grandchildren. First and foremost, the unprecedented and unsustainable public debt we’re passing on to the next generation demands our immediate attention.
Regardless of party affiliation or political ideology, we all understand that in our household budgets we cannot continue to spend money we don’t have. Sooner or later, the accumulated debt will impoverish or enslave us. The same logic that governs our household finances also applies to our state and national governments. No act of Congress or the Legislature can repeal the laws of mathematics.
And I would argue that there’s a moral dimension to the debt crisis. Simply put, it is immoral to borrow money from your grandchildren.
At the state level, Maine has made enormous progress unwinding the debt clock. The last Legislature reformed our public employee pension system that was on the road to insolvency and paid down several hundred million dollars owed to Maine hospitals for unreimbursed MaineCare coverage. For the time being, we have stopped piling up more hospital debt, but we still owe the hospitals more than $400 million.
In Washington, D.C., our federal government is flat broke. It borrows 32 cents of every dollar it spends, month after month, year after year, with no end in sight. If we increase tax rates on the rich, those with incomes greater than $200,000, we will gain about $80 billion a year in new revenue. Problem is, the federal government spends $10 billion a day and borrows more than $3 billion of that. So we could fund about eight days of federal spending by jacking up the top bracket to what it was 10 years ago, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem, in Washington and Augusta. There aren’t enough rich people to fix this. Even if you confiscated all their wealth, it wouldn’t cover even one year of current spending, and you would only get that windfall one time.
Since entitlement programs account for 62 percent of federal spending (compared with 19 percent for defense), the only path to solvency is entitlement reform. But if you put serious reform proposals on the table, you run the risk of being vilified in the liberal media and accused by political opponents of wanting to throw granny in the snowbank so you give tax cuts to the rich.
Look across the pond if you want some idea of where this is headed.
For years, Ivy-educated American progressives have lectured us about the superiority of the European model of generous welfare programs, open-door immigration, bulletproof job security, long-paid vacations, extended unemployment benefits, early retirement and “free” health care.
Today, with Europe in a slow-motion financial collapse, those progressive chickens have come home to roost on the streets of London, Athens and Madrid.
We’re on the same path to chaos and insolvency as the social democracies of Western Europe.
Whose vision of the future will prevail? Will we continue to embrace the progressive redistributionist model that measures its success by the number of people who depend on government to meet their basic needs? Or will we turn back to freedom and personal responsibility?
To put this in human terms, let’s decide who is most worthy of our limited resources. Will we make sure your 75-year-old grandmother who lives alone has her meds and stays warm this winter? Or will we continue to subsidize your 28-year-old able-bodied but unemployed nephew and make sure he has free health care, free methadone and free cab fare to the methadone clinic? Our resources are limited and we’re drowning in debt; we can’t afford to carry both of them. Who will we choose?
Lawmakers will have many tough choices to make in the next year or two. This one is easy.
Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman, R-Amherst, represents District 30 in the Maine House of Representatives. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.