February 7

JOSEPH REISERT: Supporting the next generation of Mainers

Commentary

In his State of the State address on Tuesday night, Gov. Paul LePage presented a coherent and compelling account of what the state government should do, and why. Though too many Mainers will refuse to heed his message because they dislike the messenger, LePage’s arguments deserve close attention.

LePage stated the fundamental premise of his analysis very clearly: “We owe the next generation a society that provides them with prosperity and opportunity.”

As far as I can tell, every politician in the state agrees with the governor about this, because every politician I’ve ever heard speak has expressed the same fear LePage articulated in his address: that too many of our young people leave the state every year in search of better opportunities.

I’ve been hearing versions of that worry since I moved to this state almost 20 years ago, and now that my own children are approaching adulthood, I’ve begun to feel it more personally. That fear keeps getting expressed because our economy keeps sputtering.

Though everyone seems to agree in the abstract that the task of government is to preserve, from one generation to the next, a free, thriving and prosperous society, the parties disagree about how to achieve such a society.

Apart from the recent and brief interlude of total Republican control, the state has been substantially governed by Democrats and Democratic priorities for the last 40 years.

LePage ran for office arguing that, if we want to put the state on a fundamentally different economic trajectory from we’ve all been complaining about for decades, we need to adopt a fundamentally different set of economic policies.

The Republican Legislature elected with LePage in 2010 took some important first steps in that direction, most notably by enacting the regulatory reform measure, L.D. 1, and by cutting the state’s income tax.

Although it is far too early to tell whether we’ve successfully turned the economic corner, early indications are good. Since LePage took office, unemployment is down and remains below the national average.

What the governor did not say in his speech on Tuesday, but should have said, was that while the national unemployment rate has improved because millions of people have quit the nation’s workforce since 2009, Maine’s labor force has held substantially constant during his time in office, which means that all of the improvement in our unemployment rate reflects real economic improvement, while much of the “improvement” in the national measure is a mirage, produced not by opportunity, but by despair.

More controversially, LePage argued for limiting the size and scope of Maine’s welfare policies and reforming the delivery of financial support and other care for the needy.

There can there be no clearer proof that our state is spending more than it can afford on health care than the longstanding, $750 million debt the state owed until last fall to our hospitals. At LePage’s urging, and with the support of the Democratic-controlled Legislature (whose support the governor ought to have acknowledged Tuesday) that debt has, finally, been repaid.

When we have such clear proof that we already spend more than we can afford on health care, how can it make sense to commit the state to additional Medicaid spending?

Yes, the national government has promised to pay the lion’s share of those incremental costs, but in light of the disastrously mismanaged rollout of Obamacare nationally — the long-term care provisions abandoned, the employer mandate suspended, a dysfunctional website, disappointing enrollment numbers, ballooning cost estimates, increasing predictions that Obamacare will undermine incentives to work and further reduce the numbers of people who work for a living, etc., etc. — who really expects the cost estimates to be accurate or for the states to see all the federal money they expect?

What we need to do is to figure out how much we can afford to spend on social services, without strangling our economy, and then prioritize that spending. Children, the disabled, the elderly — their needs must be addressed first, before we add additional supports for non-disabled, working-age adults.

LePage’s other argument for limiting and reforming support for working-age Mainers is that long-term benefits have not, and will not, break what he calls “the cycle of generational poverty.”

The only thing that will do that is getting more people into jobs, which is why finding a way to change the trajectory of our state’s economy would be the best thing our state government could do for all Maine’s people.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.
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