Legislature’s priorities for 2014 are askew

By Alex Willette, Special to the BDN
Posted Nov. 19, 2013, at 2:35 p.m.

Later this week, the Maine Legislative Council will meet to decide which bills get to receive public hearings and votes in next year’s session at the State House. The council is made up of all 10 members of House and Senate leadership, including me, and currently consists of six Democrats and four Republicans.

One major disagreement is welfare. Should we expand it to cover more able-bodied young adults, or should we reform it to improve accountability? Last month, the council approved welfare expansion but voted against every welfare reform bill proposed — and voted against them along party lines.

My Democratic colleagues have made it very clear that they’re committed to expanding medical welfare under Obamacare. This is problematic for a few reasons. First, Maine’s Medicaid program has been ballooning in cost over the years, doubling as a share of the state budget and crowding out important priorities such as education and funding for first responders. We’ve even raided environmental cleanup funds just to cover welfare deficits. Expanding welfare would eventually cost Maine taxpayers $150 million in every budget.

Second, we just paid off a half-billion-dollar Medicaid debt to our hospitals caused by past expansions. It would be irresponsible to expand the very program that contributed to that debt accumulating in the first place.

Third, many of the people who would be eligible for the Medicaid expansion will be eligible for reduced-cost private health insurance offered through the federal government for as little as $5 per week and is a far better alternative than squeezing Maine taxpayers and putting more people on the dole.

Finally, Maine can’t afford any more broken promises from Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama told us repeatedly that if you like your health plan, under Obamacare, you can keep it. We now know that’s not true, and the president, to his credit, has apologized for that broken promise. The feds say Congress will pick up the tab for much of the cost of welfare expansion, but even if that were a good deal for Maine taxpayers, Congress hasn’t exactly proven that it can be trusted.

No, a better avenue would be to take steps to reform Maine’s broken and bloated welfare system. That’s why Republicans introduced several welfare reform bills for next year. One would simply require able-bodied people to look for work before receiving welfare checks.

Another would close loopholes that allow welfare recipients to skip out on the ASPIRE work search program while receiving benefits. Professionals at the Department of Health and Human Services have specifically pointed to this as a necessary change to improve accountability in our system.

Yet another of our bills would have established a study group to find ways to create a tiered welfare system, whereby a new job or a raise doesn’t automatically disqualify someone for all their benefits, thus creating a disincentive to work.

Unfortunately, Democratic leadership voted down all of these commonsense proposals. However, they will be appealed on Thursday, and we hope that our colleagues change their minds.

There were many other misplaced priorities, with a top Democrat’s wine tasting bill taking precedence over bills to help human trafficking victims and homeless veterans.

Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, introduced a bill to allow courts to vacate the prostitution convictions of human trafficking victims. Human trafficking is a growing problem in Maine, and women who fall victim to it often see their lives ruined by convictions for crimes they committed while under duress. That’s not right, and Republicans want to do something about it.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, introduced a bill that would simply allow the state to sell some abandoned buildings in his hometown to a veterans’ organization to be used as homeless shelters for veterans.

Some have speculated that Democrats stopped these good bills for political reasons; that they don’t want Republicans in targeted districts to get something accomplished in an election year. I certainly hope that’s not true because Maine faces many issues that need to be solved regardless of politics.

I know how I’ll be voting on Thursday. We must rein in the welfare spending while doing more to help Maine’s most vulnerable citizens. Please call Democratic leadership at 287-1300 and ask them to do the same.

Rep. Alex Willette, R-Mapleton is the assistant Republican leader in the Maine House of Representatives.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/11/19/opinion/legislatures-priorities-for-2014-are-askew/ printed on July 29, 2014