As church leaders who take the example and teachings of Jesus to heart, we believe the moral measure of any budget is how the most needy among us — “the least of these” — fare in our society.
The biennial budget as proposed would undermine the lives, dignity and rights of low-wage earners, the elderly and the disabled by cutting funding for programs like Drugs for the Elderly, general assistance, Supplemental Security Income for legal immigrants, and Head Start. The preservation of such programs is often on the lips of faith leaders. It is not new for us to call on all segments of our society, including state government, faith communities and non-profit organizations to work in cooperation to maintain the safety net of basic needs for our most vulnerable neighbors.
This request is not new. It is simply following the Gospel of Christ as we are called to do.
As we look to the current state budget, however, it is crucial for Maine’s faith leaders to speak out on behalf of a wider segment of Mainers. Budgets are moral documents and should aim for the common good. This budget, to a greater extent than ever before, threatens to erode the ability of middle-income families and individuals to provide for their well-being.
The tax cuts to Maine’s top income bracket passed in 2011, the largest in our state’s history, account for $300 million pulled directly out of the revenue portion of state government. By returning the rate for the wealthiest Mainers to 8.5 percent, the Legislature could prevent the property tax increases and shift of costs to municipalities that would threaten the ability of many low- and middle-income residents to remain in their homes.
Programs that are proven and effective measures of relief for those who need it most, such as expanded and simplified circuit breaker and homestead exemptions, should be restored for all who qualify, not only the elderly.
Because Maine has leaned too long and too hard on property tax, another possible source of income is to raise the lodging tax from 7 percent to the New England average of 9.5 percent. This tax has not increased in 25 years. Such a slight and overdue increase would not impact whether people visit Maine from other states, nor would it affect most Mainers. Rather it would add $18 million in annual revenue. An increase in the lodging tax is an example of a simple common-sense policy that we ask the Legislature to consider.
We ask our elected officials and public policy makers to do all in their power to ensure that Maine supports its hardworking middle class while also safeguarding those most on the margins of society. Simply put, do not balance the budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.
When confronted with Jesus’ words that the “poor shall always be with us,” the 20th century Catholic activist Dorothy Day replied, “Yes, but we are not content that there should be so many of them.” We echo this sentiment.
As our leaders seek to serve all people in Maine, we pray that they are graced with wisdom and strength to do the work before them.
Bishop Richard J. Malone is apostolic administrator of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, and the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane is Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Maine. The Rev. Richard W. Cowles is interim conference minister at the Maine Conference, United Church of Christ.