Let’s stop scapegoating poor

Last September, Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett, a former state Senate president, said party officials would begin gathering about 62,000 signatures this fall with a goal of putting a question on the November 2016 ballot. The measure would cut the income tax rate in half over a four-year period and institute a new series of welfare reforms.

“These are very popular reforms,” he told the Portland Press Herald. “I expect people will vote for them overwhelmingly.”

Now, I hear, they have abandoned this effort until next year.

Here is what really stands out to me. We can collect enough signatures, generally around 65,000, to give people the choice to legalize recreational marijuana. But signature gatherers haven’t been able to get enough to put on the ballot a Republican-backed measure to cut the income tax or “reform the welfare system.”

The Republicans either are not as competent as the pot smokers in Maine, or there is no support for cutting the top income tax rate from 7.15 percent to 4 percent. Maybe it is because such a cut would force towns to raise property taxes and slash services and the state would probably end up raising the sales tax.

I have testified against proposed massive income tax cuts in the past. As chairman of Lee Auto Malls, I am fortunate to run a very successful business that puts me in the highest income tax bracket. As I see it, people in my tax bracket will get the largest tax cut, and everyone else in my town will have to pay for it through higher property taxes. On the surface, it would be a good deal for me.

But as a citizen and employer, disproportionately shifting much of the burden of paying for our schools and services from the rich to the middle class and poor doesn’t look like a good deal for our state as a whole. I don’t mind paying a higher rate to be able to live in Maine and see our schools and fire departments adequately funded.

As for changes to the welfare system, these include drug testing, instituting stronger work requirements and making asylum seekers ineligible for benefits.

I am opposed to drug testing. We don’t do it at Lee Auto Malls because I view it as intrusive and unnecessary. We have 470 employees, the vast majority of whom are model employees. Once in a while, we have someone with an alcohol or drug problem. It usually becomes apparent very quickly, and we deal with it on an individual basis. We almost always try to assist them in getting help. If they are unwilling or unable to get help and continue to drink or use drugs while on the job, we let them go.

I know drugs have become a massive problem in Maine. Drug testing is not going to make it go away. Restricting the availability of OxyContin, oxycodone, Vicodin and all of the variations of these drugs would be a start.

I am very much in favor of cracking down on welfare fraud, but we still have to be intelligent about it.

Mary Mayhew, in her role as the Department of Health and Human Services commissioner, has cost us hundreds of millions of dollars through gross incompetence. For example, Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, which is run by DHHS, is on track to be charged $20 million per year by the federal government because they lost their federal certification. That will amount to $100 million by 2018 if they don’t fix the problems at the facility.

According to the Bangor Daily News, over the last five years, judges have ordered nearly $951,000 in restitution from recipients who defrauded benefits programs, or about $190,000 per year. The LePage administration is wasting, squandering and spending over 100 times more than they are collecting from the perpetrators.

During the same time, the state has recovered nearly $61 million in state and federal money from providers for fraud, or more than $12 million per year.

The governor and Mayhew have such a fixation on welfare fraud, yet their focus is on the rare cases of individual fraud. They never seem to talk about the big wins that don’t involve any wrongdoing by benefit recipients – $61 million! Go after the big money.

Maine is lagging behind the rest of New England. We are ranked 47th in the nation for economic growth. Isn’t it time to focus on doing some good instead of cutting my taxes, raising property taxes and scapegoating the poor?

Adam D. Lee is chairman of Lee Auto Malls, a family-owned business since 1936. The Credit Now division of Lee Auto has a location in Ellsworth.


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