Maine is having an argument right now — which in many ways is being repeated throughout the country — about what type of government we, as citizens, want.
The argument is dressed up as a debate about budgets and a looming debt crisis, but it’s really about priorities and competing world views.
To be sure, over the long-term, spending and revenues have to be brought into line.
But the long-term problems shouldn’t drown out the urgency we need to solve our unemployment crisis and make sure working families are not abandoned during a slow recovery from an unprecedented economic collapse.
At a time when we need real solutions that put people back to work and begin to untangle our national health care crisis, some conservatives are pushing an agenda meant to dismantle government.
As President Obama said during a speech last week in Kansas: “They want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”
Gov. Paul LePage’s disdain for government, and in particular anti-poverty programs, are no secret. His latest budget proposal would leave tens of thousands of working families, the elderly, the disabled and the poor to fend for themselves.
Today, Gov. LePage talks about the cuts as an economic necessity. Count me as skeptical. There is a choice.
Gov. LePage has talked about cutting MaineCare and other public programs since the earliest days of his campaign.
In his first budget — the one that is quickly sinking under erroneous assumptions and mismanagement — he unsuccessfully pursued many of the same cuts he’s advocating today, even while also successfully advocating for massive tax cuts for Maine’s wealthiest residents. I’m sure there is a shortfall, and the governor helped to cause it.
While the scope and breadth of the latest round of proposed cuts — more than $220 million over the next 18 months — are shocking, they shouldn’t come as a surprise. They are the fulfillment of his cut-until-it-hurts rhetoric.
To be sure, these cuts would hurt. Tens of thousands would lose access to health care. Preventative health care programs, paid for with tobacco settlement money through the Fund for Healthy Maine, would be crippled or eliminated. Thousands of fragile and frail people could lose their homes, and the LePage administration has no plans for the transition.
His budget proposal will take a terrible toll on countless families. It would touch every community in the state, cost thousands of jobs, and even people with private insurance today would pay.
But as the dangerous implications of his ideas become apparent, the governor now talks about economic necessity.
Sure, he still lobs his bombs at Democrats, placing blame everywhere but where it belongs. But some of the bombast has been replaced, at least when he’s talking to a mass audience.
Last weekend in the governor’s radio address, he said that he regrets having to make the decisions to deny health care and homes to thousands of people.
“But they are decisions that have to be made because of the economic circumstances we’re faced with,” LePage said. “Unlike Washington, Maine is not able to kick the can down the road and ignore our fiscal obligations. Federal funds have dried up. We are no longer receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus money to cover the expanded Medicaid program.”
Shifting the blame to the federal government, LePage says his hand has been forced.
In a recent press release, he even included a quote from state Rep. Andre Cushing, Republican House Assistant Majority Leader, saying that “The governor has made difficult and painful decisions. … None of us like this.”
Earlier this year, while in Washington for a National Governors Association meeting, it was a different story.
In an interview with Jonathan Riskind of Maine Today Media, LePage again blamed the federal government for Maine’s problems, even specifically talking about MaineCare. But this time, it wasn’t about money “drying up.” Instead, it was about burdensome rules that come along with federal dollars.
“Let us run our states with the resources we have,” LePage said. “Give us the flexibility to run our states and get out of the way.” He followed that up with a simple proposition: “Keep your money; give us flexibility.”
The flexibility he wanted: To kick people off MaineCare.
Gov. LePage has had his eye on these cuts from the beginning. He’s remarkably consistent, even if his rationale is shifting.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. His clients include Maine Equal Justice Partners and EngageMaine. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.