A couple days late, admittedly — but running for the State Senate while working full-time is hard work. Thankfully, weekends allow a little time to write!
First: a link to the State of the State address. The Governor did add and subtract a few things, he is often unscripted. If you missed it, this will allow you to see most of what I’m referring to.
Governor LePage surprised me with his tone, in that he was more conciliatory than he has been in the past. This is a good thing. For the moment, the Governor and the Republicans in the Legislature are willing to work with the Democrats on the budget proposals. I recognize the reality that the Democrats need to work with the GOP right now, as they can easily pass anything they’d like without consulting us. Unfortunately, the Democrats last session helped put us in the position of having to work within that budget — which included a tax cut of $200 million that primarily benefits the richest Mainers. The budget in 2011 required a two-thirds majority vote, and could not have passed without the help of Democratic lawmakers.
The tax cut
The Governor is very proud of his tax cut, and there is no significant discussion in the Legislature to repeal it. This action alone would put the budget almost completely back into balance, and would require us to find approximately $20 million in savings — something which is very doable by tinkering around the margins. Benefit cuts of $20 million, even if designed to largely affect low-income Mainers, could at least be touted as shared sacrifice — the rich giving up their tax cut, those receiving help receiving a little less. I support repeal of the tax cut, as does a coalition of organizations which includes my profession’s organization, the National Association of Social Workers. If you share my belief that we should be repealing this giveaway to the wealthy instead of stripping low-income people of their health insurance, you can sign their petition and tell your story here.
Part of the tax cut, of course, affects those who make over $20,000. Once you make that much, the rest of your income is taxed at the highest bracket. We are not in an economic position to do so now, but I would be happy to join forces with Republican lawmakers to reduce the tax burden of people making that level of income, by adding a higher bracket for incomes of over $100,000. Those who make more can afford to pay more. According to Maine Revenue Services, someone making $20,000 a year will see a tax cut of $17 under this new plan. Those in the top 1% will see an average of $2,800 in savings. The top 1% does not need that extra money, but I know someone making $20,000 sure could use more than $17.
Our tax burden
The Governor is right: our tax burden is higher than most states. But he never gets into why. He discusses how people in New Hampshire and Massachusetts make more money than us, and that their tax burdens are lower. But he doesn’t take into account what it costs to live in those states, either. Their statewide income is driven up by the wages received by people in Boston, where renting an apartment that will cost you $500 here will cost you $1,500 there. Their tax burden is also driven down by simple geography: more people in less space. For instance, we have to pay to pave miles of highways that connect Aroostook County and other northern points to the rest of the state. This costs a lot of money, but there are not a lot of people living near those highways to share the responsibility of paving them, so we do it for them. Our tax burden will always be higher than our neighbors for these kinds of reasons. However, we can make changes that more fairly allocate that burden.
Governor LePage touted his reform of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, that he believes now has a five-year lifetime limit that previously didn’t exist. In fact, that limit has existed nationwide since 1996, with the passage of bipartisan welfare reform under President Clinton and a Republican Congress. That law did allow for each state to exempt a small portion of their caseloads from the limit, which is what is no longer possible. Maine targeted single women with substance abuse histories for this extra funding and was often successful in assisting these women in ending their dependence on substances and helping them provide for their children. No longer. With prescription drug abuse on the rise, we have opted to spend less on preventing it. This is unacceptable.
The Governor supports Sen. Mason’s charter school bill, which allows for the opening of up to ten charter schools in the state over the next several years. While not extremely damaging on this small scale, it opens the door to more damaging proposals in the future. The idea of charter schools acting as competitors for other public schools is fiscally irresponsible. Schools are operated primarily with two pieces of funding: one from the state, the other from local property tax revenue. If a second school is opened that is in direct competition with the first, overhead becomes an added cost that will become unmanageable. Think of this in terms of your own home. If you suddenly needed to pay for two living spaces, and utilities for them both, your costs will obviously go up. This is what will happen with two competing school buildings. This doesn’t even take into account everything else — teachers, administration, supplies. Everything is doubled up. This isn’t responsible. Although there have certainly been some successful charter schools, nationally the reviews are mixed at best. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that investment in early childhood education, such as the Educare Center in Waterville, pays dividends in the long run.
If the Legislature wanted to open new schools, they should have opted for legislation that opened more specialized schools such as the Maine School for Science and Mathematics or the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. These schools are specifically designed to provide an alternative education, rather than just duplicating effort. I would have supported this kind of charter school legislation. Teachers unions are naturally concerned about charter schools being non-union, and I share that concern, but would urge them to work hard to organize those new schools and would support that effort. Teachers in unions are paid a respectable salary, one which allows them to focus on teaching instead of how to feed their families. Their union advocates for professional development opportunities and smaller class sizes to improve the education of our children, among other things.
A coalition of sustainability organizations are pushing for a citizen’s initiative to require us to get a higher percentage of our energy from renewable sources, and unlike the Governor, I support this 100%. We are responsible for the change in the climate, and we must do what we can to mitigate the damage. Renewable energy is one significant way for us to go about doing this. The governor states that we have higher energy costs than other states, and he is right — but he doesn’t take into account that those other states have access to cheap fossil fuels within their own borders, such as coal and natural gas. We have to produce our own energy differently, and if we don’t want to pay extra to import it, then we need more renewable energy.
The Governor has also been attacking Efficiency Maine of late, the organization that is responsible for initiatives that reduce our energy use. Maine has the oldest housing stock in the nation, which means it’s extremely inefficient in its energy use. Efficiency Maine is one program that has been weatherizing homes and providing other cost-saving methods. The cheapest source of energy is the source you don’t use. Every time a home is weatherized, that’s less oil needed to heat it. Our efforts should be directed toward this task so we do not need to plead with the federal government every year for more money for heating assistance. It’s clear that money is drying up, so we have to fend for ourselves.
Credit where it’s due
The Governor did say one thing I very strongly agree with, and that is that we need to reduce domestic violence in this state and change laws to be more effective. Too often a perpetrator is back out on the street the next day, placing their partner at risk once again. Many incidents go unreported because the victims see that reality: report it and they’re at risk for greater harm. If the Legislature can work with the Governor to reduce domestic violence, then chances are I’m supportive. I give the Governor credit for being willing to stand up for victims of domestic violence. However, it is not enough to do better after an incident has occurred. We must also work to do a better job of preventing domestic violence in the first place. This is neither a women’s issue, nor a men’s issue – but a human issue.
That’s it for this post — please feel free to contact me with questions.