Like most Mainers, I was raised to save before I spend and to learn how to say “not now.” My husband and I put those lessons to use every day raising our five sons and running our business, a food service equipment supplier and kitchen store. When I get on Interstate 95 and drive the hour and a half to Augusta, however, it’s as if I entered a parallel universe where money grows on marble columns and all you hear is, “Yes, how much does your [insert special interest group here] need?”
That is no way to run a household, a business or, especially, a state.
This unfortunate truth is beginning to get clearer as we begin this year’s legislative session. Any casual reader of this paper has heard that Maine’s government is once again growing faster than expected, and we have to figure out a way to balance our checkbook. Our perennial spending problem at the Department of Health and Human Services, Maine’s welfare agency, has put us on track to run up an extra $100 million tab through July.
When talking about the spending problems at DHHS, some paint the issue as bad estimates, complaining about the fact that we always end up spending more than we planned on. But in my business, if I spend more than I expect to, I don’t try to improve my estimation, I try to cut my spending. State government should operate the same way.
Since 2001, MaineCare (Maine’s Medicaid program) enrollment has almost doubled — from 180,000 to 339,000 — and state and federal spending on the medical welfare program has increased by $1 billion, according to DHHS. To put that into perspective, Maine’s entire government costs total about $3 billion per year. In 1998, MaineCare represented only 12.4 percent of state spending. Today, it represents 21 percent.
DHHS and MaineCare are swallowing up our state budget, crowding out funding for education, law enforcement, natural resource management and other vital programs. Education alone was cut by $100 million, or more than 10 percent, from 2008 to 2010. As a former teacher, I feel strongly that we cannot continue to take money from our schools and give it to able-bodied welfare recipients.
Some people deny that Maine’s welfare programs are too generous, but let’s look at the facts.
The New England states have about as many people on Medicaid as the national average, but Maine has 50 percent more than either New England as a whole or the rest of the nation, according to data provided by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center. We have three times as many people on the program as New Hampshire — a state with a roughly equal population. In fact, at 27 percent of the population, Maine’s Medicaid and MaineCare enrollment is the third highest in the nation, a mere two places behind the most fiscally irresponsible state in the union: California.
At 31 percent of state spending, Maine’s welfare spending ranks second in the nation. We also rank second for TANF cash welfare and third for food stamps. It’s hard to give out more welfare than Maine does, and, even if we wanted to, it would be hard to raise the necessary taxes because we’re already ranked ninth in the nation for that, too.
It’s important to keep in mind that other states all take care of their most vulnerable — children, the disabled and the elderly. That’s what welfare is for. The difference is, Maine often provides for those who can provide for themselves, and we do it to the detriment of our teachers, our first responders, our road crews and countless others who carry out the essential functions of government.
Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage made some great strides over the past two years to reverse this trend, reducing welfare spending by 14 percent as a percentage of overall state spending. We did this through a number of avenues. One example is my bill to cap Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits at five years, which passed as part of the governor’s budget, along with capping methadone treatment at two years, trimming the size of the bureaucracy at DHHS, removing able-bodied 19- and 20-year olds from MaineCare coverage, restricting welfare benefits for drug offenders and noncitizens, and many other reforms.
Continuing reforms such as these is the only way to truly avoid the $100 million deficit we see today. Hopefully the new Democratic leadership in the Legislature will come to realize this when they begin to look at the numbers. Like any good household bookkeeper or businessperson, we must balance our checkbook and learn to say “not now.”
Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, represents Glenburn, Kenduskeag, Levant and part of Corinth in the Maine Legislature. A former teacher, she and her husband own a small business.