From education funding to municipal revenue sharing to protecting our most vulnerable citizens, Maine people want to know how the state’s proposed two-year budget will affect their families and communities.
Whatever anyone thinks of the proposal now before the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, it is an opening bid and a work in progress. The final product will look very different from the proposal now before the Legislature.
In any case, we all need to recognize the elephant in the living room before we can have a meaningful discussion of budget priorities. As it turns out, it’s not an elephant at all but a braying donkey. Let me explain.
The unrestrained decade-long expansion of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, is cannibalizing the state budget and is at the root of Maine’s chronic budget shortfalls. Until we reign in and roll back that expansion, every other responsibility of state government will be undermined and underfunded.
I call Maine’s problem the donkey in the living room because the Medicaid expansion took off in 2002, under a Democratic governor with large Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature. MaineCare enrollment mushroomed 76 percent while our population grew a mere three percent in the 10 years since John Baldacci’s inauguration, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
We have about 200,000 residents who I would characterize as our most vulnerable citizens: Maine’s elderly poor, the disabled and those who suffer from mental illness. State government is not going to abandon these folks.
There are another 140,000 individuals enrolled in MaineCare who likely wouldn’t be eligible in other states. As governor, Baldacci lowered eligibility requirements to the point where 27 percent of our population is now on Medicaid compared to a national average of 18 percent. Now the feds are telling us that under Obamacare we can’t roll back MaineCare enrollment to what it was, despite the fact that these folks can now pick up a private insurance plan for up to 58 percent less — according to the Bureau of Insurance — thanks to recent reforms to Maine’s health insurance regulations.
We cannot afford to provide free medical care to able-bodied 19- and 20-year olds, nor can we afford to pay daily taxicab fares for thousands of drug addicts to travel to methadone clinics. Our limited resources have been stretched to the breaking point, and it will only get worse if the feds don’t loosen their grip on the allocation of Medicaid funds.
When I was going door-to-door last year to introduce myself to voters, again and again I heard complaints about the rampant abuse of MaineCare by able-bodied people who are gaming the system. Some of them go to the emergency room for sore throats, headaches and other minor ailments, in many cases calling an ambulance, all at public expense.
Maine’s most vulnerable poor and disabled citizens are competing for scarce budget dollars against able-bodied younger people who should be pulling their own weight.
We certainly won’t be able to fix this with more taxes. We’ve been there and done that. For decades we treated individuals who earn $20,000 a year the same as millionaires, in the same 8.5 percent top bracket, per Maine Revenue Services data, and we’re still broke. We can’t tax our way out of this mess, and, frankly, we can’t cut our way to prosperity either. But we can grow our way to a more prosperous Maine.
That’s why I’ve sponsored a private-sector jobs bill to allow workers to choose for themselves whether they wish to pay union dues. This saves workers money while drawing jobs to Maine. The numbers don’t lie. Since 1980, job growth in the 24 right-to-work states has outpaced that of forced-unionism states 71 to 32 percent, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Wages are 4-percent higher when adjusted for cost of living and have grown four times faster in the past decade.
That’s also why I support the governor’s proposal to pay off our massive debt to Maine hospitals with a revenue bond tied to Maine’s liquor business, securing dwindling federal matching funds and giving us the credit to issue an infrastructure bond.
Democrats want the liquor revenue in the general fund where they can spend it on more welfare. I’d rather put that money where the Legislature can’t touch it and use it to pay our bills before spending it. We need job creation, not more welfare dependency, and we must pay our bills.
Given the makeup of the 126th Legislature, passage of these initiatives will be an uphill battle. But with steady constituent pressure on state lawmakers, we can get this done and get Maine moving forward.
Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman, R-Amherst, represents House District 30 in the Maine Legislature. He is serving his first term on the Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee.