December 16, 2013

FROM THE STATE HOUSE: No way to split the difference between competing visions of Maine’s future

Rep. Lawrence Lockman

Should civility, cooperation and compromise be the yardstick by which we measure our elected representatives in Augusta?

Well, it depends on the outcome.

Frankly, as a freshman legislator, I’ve concluded that the noble quest for bipartisan compromise is seriously overrated. Compromise is virtuous only when it results in good public policy. When it perpetuates the same wrong-headed policy choices that put us in the ditch, what is the point of clamoring for more of the same?

For example, how do you compromise between the Democrats’ relentless push for yet another expansion of Medicaid enrollment under Obamacare, and the Republican view that Medicaid has cannibalized the state budget, and must be reformed and restructured? Facts are stubborn things, and won’t bend to calls for bipartisan compromise.

Fact: Medicaid expenditures as a percentage of state General Fund spending have doubled over the past 15 years. The numbers are staggering. Medicaid enrollment increased from 200,000 to 340,000 under Gov. John Baldacci and Democrat majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Compare that to New Hampshire with 160,000 enrollees.

The uncontrolled and unpredictable costs of this medical welfare program have blown holes in the state budget year after year, forcing the Legislature to pass stop-gap supplemental budgets to staunch the bleeding. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 seriously disabled Mainers languish on waiting lists for Medicaid services because funding is unavailable. This outcome was a deliberate policy choice of the Baldacci administration and the Democrats who controlled the Legislature. They expanded access to free medical care for tens of thousands of able-bodied single men, while Maine’s most vulnerable citizens, including wheelchair-bound seniors who can’t feed themselves, remain to this day on waiting lists for needed services.

Another example of irreconcilable differences was the legislative fight earlier this year over paying off nearly $500 million in unpaid hospital debt for Medicaid services that accumulated during the last enrollment expansion under Baldacci. Paying off that debt was Gov. Paul LePage’s top legislative priority this year, and he took a no-compromise position: Pay the debt now with funds from a renegotiated wholesale liquor contract. Period.

Democrats at first complained that the governor’s plan was unconstitutional, and when they lost that argument, insisted on linking the debt pay-off to another expansion of Medicaid enrollment. The governor said no deal. He told Democrat leaders he would veto any bill that linked the hospital payment to another expansion of the welfare program that caused the debt in the first place. He made good on that promise, and we sustained his veto.

Finally, the Democrat majority was shamed into giving us a clean up-or-down vote on the governor’s original proposal. It passed unanimously, and the hospitals have been paid. LePage was wisely unwilling to compromise, and in the end, he prevailed. Thanks to his leadership, Maine state government is no longer a deadbeat debtor for the first time in decades.

When we return to the State House next month, Medicaid expansion under Obamacare will be up for another vote, despite legislative rules that prohibit the introduction of bills that were voted up or down in the first session. Democrat leadership is hell-bent on chaining us to the caboose of the Obamacare train wreck, even if it means piling more unsustainable debt on our kids and grandkids. I’m not willing to compromise on this issue, and I’m fully prepared to make that case to voters.

Bottom line: Maine is at the proverbial crossroads. We can choose to continue down the path we’ve been on for the past several decades, with continued expansion of welfare programs that don’t work to reduce poverty but are very good at creating permanent high-paying jobs and rich benefit packages for liberal ideologues. If we stay on that path, Maine will eventually resemble Detroit, Mich.

Or we can choose a different path. We can change course before we reach the point of no return as a dead-end entitlement state where liberal Democrats use poor people as human shields to advance the professional Left’s self-serving progressive agenda.

After they took office three years ago, LePage and the Republican majorities in the 125th Legislature made great strides in beginning to turn the ship of state around. In fact, some of the most important reforms, including tax-rate reductions and public pension overhaul, passed with better than two-thirds bipartisan majorities. It’s called leadership, and it means highlighting rather than blurring the differences between these competing visions of what kind of future we want for our kids and grandkids.

But make no mistake: one or the other vision will prevail. Splitting the difference is not an option.

Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman, R-Amherst, represents District 30 in the Maine House of Representatives, and serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development committee. Email at larrylockman@rivah.net.
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