Budget Brief: Grow Maine's Servant Class
On Thursday the Governor laid out his budget plan for the next two years. He called it a "jobs bill." And indeed he touched upon the topic of jobs, lightly, in his closing remarks, making it clear how his administration plans to address this vexing issue.
"Those who can work," said Mr. LePage, "we will simply ask them to get a job."
Problem solved! Standing ovation from the new GOP majority.
Some listeners were perplexed. Where are all these new jobs going to come from? I've spent some time parsing the Governor's remarks and I think I've got the answer. I also think that Mr. LePage was wise not to spell it out. The plan, simply put, is to grow Maine's servant class.
I don't claim any special insight here. The pattern is pretty obvious when you consider the tone and substance of the Governor's remarks. As the Bangor Daily News noted in an editorial Friday morning, LePage "stressed that his budget was about 'shared sacrifice,' but the sacrifices he described would be borne only by state workers and retirees and the poor."
The editors went on to add, "This should strike most Mainers as inherently unfair" — like that's a bad thing. Unfairness — more precisely, economic disparity — is the engine of our future economic growth. It's going to transform us into an Ayn Rand-style, free-enterprise Utopia.
Consider the courageous role that LePage has thrust upon the wealthiest Mainers in his far-reaching scheme. Those in the top bracket will see their tax rate cut from 8.5 to 7.95 percent. The very wealthy will suffer a reduction in their estate taxes, so they can pass their fortunes intact to their children. This will result in a healthy accumulation of cash on one side of the economic scale. You can think of it as a form of kinetic energy.
What role do the less fortunate stand to play? For starters, state retirees will see their pensions frozen for two years, and their annual cost-of-living increases capped after that. These folks, bear in mind, receive no Social Security. If they have no other source of income, they're SOL.
The next group of Mainers who will be empowered to contribute to the new economic order are legal immigrants. Legal immigrants, mind you. These folks will no longer be eligible for the kind of state assistance that the Governor likes to call "welfare." We can't be sure, but presumably he's talking about TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — which accounts for about one percent of the state's annual budget, or $30 million per year. Of this amount the Governor figures to save a full two-thirds, $20 million, simply by getting those foreign hordes off the dole. (This by the way was one of the most revealing points in Thursday's speech, I thought. In the Governor's mind, Maine's welfare rolls are bursting at the seams with an alien population that only he can see.)
There's more in this vein, mostly cuts to various forms of state assistance to the needy. Details are still in scant supply — but in this case, the devil is not in the details, it's right there in bold letters above the fold. We're about to embark on a major transfer of wealth to those who already have enough money. As for the others, "we will simply ask them to get a job."
But what kind of job? Obviously, working for rich people. This is, after all, a time-honored practice in Maine, dating at least back to the Gilded Age, the era of rusticators and their sprawling "cottages" on the coast. Now, in his wisdom, the Governor proposes to extend this enlightened system to the rest of the state. This marks a considerable evolution in his political thinking. In just a couple of weeks, we've progressed from "Kiss my butt" to "Baby, you can drive my car."
State Democratic leaders, with a few exceptions, seem to be taking it all rather calmly.
"'It's unfair, I think, to be overly critical at this point,' said Sen. Barry Hobbins, of York County, who serves as Senate minority leader," reports A.J. Higgins of Maine Public Broadcasting. His House counterpart, Emily Cain, went so far as to add, "Again it sounds good, the things he said."
What speech was she listening to, I wonder?
Justin Alfond of Portland, Assistant Senate Minority Leader, had a little more fire in the belly, saying of LePage, "He threw out a lot of rhetoric. He threw out a lot of campaign messages. He did not unify the state at all … and that's sad."
It could get sadder.