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It’s easy to talk in talking points.
People should pay their “fair share” of taxes. Who would disagree with that?
Jobs should pay a “living wage.” Sounds like a good thing.
Augusta should pay for 55 percent of local education costs. Sure, why not?
Yet each statement begs a question. What amount of taxes are “fair?” What’s the standard of living provided by a “living wage?” And what costs does the 55 percent target apply to?
Take them in reverse order. If you want to know what amounts are counted in the K-12 school funding formula — as well as make your eyes cross — then read Title 20-A, Section 15683 of Maine law. Of course, you will then need to jump to a different section to learn that the 55 percent talking point didn’t originally include the costs of unfunded teacher retirements.
It was the Replican-led 125th Legislature that added those pension liabilities to the calculation of costs. Was the law wrong before Republicans fixed it? Or did they gum up the works?
Really riveting stuff, right?
The same goes for a “living wage.”
Employers across the state are reporting a bevy of job openings and lamenting their inability to fill their slots. The businesses are blaming, in part, the “expanded unemployment” payments provided by Washington.
The progressive retort is that the businesses should pay higher wages. The argument goes that, if they can’t pay a “living wage,” then they should fail.
Quick math in Maine says state-level unemployment maxes out at $445 per week. With a $300 “kicker,” that is $745 per week, or $18.62 per hour on a 40-hour work week. Is that a “living wage?”
Well, MIT has a bunch of wicked smart people. They built a massive “calculator” to answer that question. And in the Bangor area, it is; a living wage is just under $14 per hour. Unless it isn’t, because a living wage is really $27.52. Or could it only cost $11.27 per hour to live?
That $14 figure is for a single person with no kids. Think of the soon-to-be graduates from Hampden Academy joining the labor force. The $27.52 is a two-parent, one-child household where only one adult works. Kids are expensive, even without child care.
So how can someone live on $11.27, less than the state minimum wage? Those are two adults without kids, both working, like college sweethearts beginning their life together after commencement.
Do we really expect employers to base compensation rates on someone’s personal situation? If two 20-something men apply to be sous chefs in a local restaurant, should the owner pay them differently based solely on whether they have a spouse or child?
Of course not.
But a “living wage” in one situation might not be for another.
Which brings us to taxes.
The headline debate always surrounds someone not paying their “fair share” of taxes. Yet, missing from the conversation is a real, discrete description on what “fairness” looks like. Is it based on income? Property? Consumption?
What is the amount? At what point does someone stop paying a fair share into the public treasury?
Feel-good talking points are easy. Rarely will you find someone opposed to “fairness,” “living wages,” or Maine’s 55-percent goal. But turning those talking points into real, concrete concepts that can be measured, weighed, considered, and applied is extraordinarily difficult.
As always, policy making isn’t for the faint-hearted. Done right, it takes real work, deep thought, and leads to hard decisions that will invariably upset somebody. That is what we should expect from elected officials, even if they often let us down.
After all, it’s way easier to talk in talking points.