Things are never that simple



Once there was a bumper sticker that read: “Imagine a Functional Government.” At the time, it was aimed at the feds. No one thought it applied to Maine.

How times have changed.

The confrontational style of Governor Paul LePage has been a challenge since he was first elected in 2010. Those were the good old days. Now he has gotten out the wrecking ball, and no legislator, program or agency is safe.

He went on a tear when legislators refused to support the budget he submitted, calling out Senate President Mike Thibodeau for special disdain.

Legislators in general? “Lying through their teeth,” he said.

He dismissed two-thirds of the legislature as being in Augusta for the wrong reasons. A third of our legislators, said he, are motivated by power, control or money. Seriously? Money? Legislators are hard-pressed to show up at work or keep a business going when they must spend months in Augusta and are on call year round for committee meetings, special sessions or other off-session legislative business.

There are expectations in their districts as well. Legislators march in parades, show up at bean suppers, attend selectmen’s or school board meetings and meet with constituents about everything from fishing regulations, to drug abuse prevention, to early childhood education.

For their trouble, they receive the princely sum of about $24,000 for a two-year session. If money is your object, serving in the legislature is not your best option.

Another third of the legislature, according to the governor, is there to be told what to do by leadership. Finally, a mere third of them are there to do the right thing, by which we presume he means agreeing with him about what is the right thing.

Well, never mind. Politics is a blood sport, and if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t run for office. But it is not the gubernatorial mouthing off that is the problem. Having gotten rid of several officials who disagreed with him, the governor now has halted the appointment process to state boards and commissions, at least those appointments that must be confirmed by the legislature.

In some instances, board members may continue to serve even after their terms have expired if a new member has not been appointed. Still, this leaves continuing members in limbo and the boards on which they serve limping along.

Having failed to achieve the level of welfare reform he desires, LePage has directed the Department of Health and Human Services to initiate rulemaking to limit food stamp benefits for certain Mainers with more than $5,000 in assets.

The rule would apply to childless adults and the assets considered would include bank accounts and recreational vehicles such as boats, jet skis, snowmobiles, ATVs and campers, but not homes or primary vehicles. Democrats called the proposal punitive, counter-productive and administratively cumbersome. But this one might get some traction. Mainers are quick to lend a hand to a neighbor in need, but when that neighbor has assets the taxpayer cannot afford, it dampens the spirit of generosity.

It is another welfare proposal that really has raised hackles. Mayor Robert Macdonald of Lewiston wants the legislature to pass a bill to fund a website that would list the names and addresses of welfare recipients, the benefits they receive and how long they have gotten them.

Mean-spirited in the extreme, Macdonald’s proposal also may contravene federal law. What purpose would such a listing serve other than shaming those who are dependent on aid? Given that when we talk about welfare abuse, we are talking about a minority of recipients, a small minority at that, all those who truly need the assistance would be subject to the sort of abuse we see every day in online comments that range from sophomoric taunts to death threats.

The rationale that taxpayers have the right to know to whom their money goes does not hold water. Have a heart, people. Do we publicly list the names of families with school kids because we’re paying for their education? We do not. Do we list the names of the sick who access health care under Medicaid? We do not.

Nor should we.

In the meantime, Republicans are mounting an end run around the legislature with a citizens’ initiative proposing both tax and welfare reform in one fell swoop. That is a lot of freight for one legislative vehicle to carry. The gamble is that the general theme of the proposal will find favor with voters, enough to overcome any reservations about individual parts or pieces. The risk is that of the “poison pill,” a single ingredient that will cause potential supporters to balk.

Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett is hoping for simple wording. “Do you want to reform welfare and reduce taxes?” Yes, and how about “Do you want free lunch? A smaller state budget? A moose permit?” Of course we want welfare reform and reduced taxes, but in what form and with what consequences? These policies are much too complicated for a referendum.

 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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