Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Rep. Karen Foster
In the fall of 2010, Republicans fought for and won majorities in both houses of the Maine Legislature for the first time in decades. Everywhere I went during that election season, people called for fewer regulations, lower taxes, more affordable health insurance and, most of all, jobs.
During the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, we gave Maine citizens what they asked for, and when I speak with people today, I see the same energy and passion I saw that fall.
We are turning Maine in the direction of economic growth, but the turn is 180 degrees, and it won't happen overnight.
When I was elected, Mainers were being smothered by taxes. The state had the ninth-highest income tax rate in the country, and property taxes ranked sixth-highest as a percentage of income.
Motivated by your voice, we passed the largest tax cut in Maine's history. As a result, the average Maine family will have an extra $288 in their pockets next year.
The independent Beacon Hill Institute projects that these tax cuts will result in 3,700 new jobs in Maine. The "death tax" reduction is expected to result in higher revenue because of the added incentive to stay in Maine. Maine's dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax has been scuttled.
We already are seeing the results of pro-growth policies. Maine's unemployment rate has gone down from 8.4 percent to 7.1 percent in the past two years, and we are seeing about $49 million more than expected this year from corporate and sales tax revenue as business activity picks up.
Another major reform that Maine people asked for was to our welfare programs.
I care deeply about protecting our most vulnerable, but I believe it is equally important to protect our safety net from those who abuse it. That is why I supported a series of reforms to public assistance.
For example, there is now a five-year cap on Temporary Aid to Needy Families benefits. For years, there was no time limit for this program. That is ironic, considering the first letter in "TANF" stands for "temporary." Sometimes people need a helping hand, but dignity and self-reliance should be encouraged.
Also, from now on, those convicted of a drug-related felony while on welfare will face meaningful consequences. We tightened eligibility for MaineCare (Medicaid) to move closer to the national mainstream and improved fraud detection at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Recent measures to bring more young people into the insurance market are finally bringing relief from the skyrocketing health insurance costs that Mainers have been paying for years. More than three times as many businesses are seeing premium decreases; and in the individual market, Anthem has filed an overall rate increase of only 1.7 percent after a decade of double-digit rate increases.
After a statewide tour to listen to small business owners, Republican legislators led a bipartisan effort to trim back redundant and outdated regulations without hurting our environment.
We gave our children a break from future debt with a comprehensive reform of the state pension system, cutting almost half of its $4 billion projected shortfall. This was achieved without higher employee contributions or a reduction in current monthly benefits. The changes saved $338 million in the current budget, which enabled us to put more money into education.
The Maine Turnpike Authority, the Maine Green Energy Alliance and the Maine State Housing Authority have been cleaned up and reformed.
Maine's unemployment insurance and workers' compensation systems have received much-needed streamlining to make them run more efficiently and fairly. Alongside reforms to ensure that benefits go only to those who truly need them were measures to strengthen worker protections for those who do, such as increased benefit amounts and a new appeals board.
Countless bills did not make headlines but made Maine a better place. For example, one made a simple change to allow master electricians to have two apprentices instead of one. This will allow more young people to have not just a job, but a skilled career.
While I am proud of the many reforms made in the 125th Legislature, we can't stop now. There is still plenty more we can do to clear the way for jobs and make government more responsible.
Together we can create a better future for the state that we love. Together we can stop talking about how to reduce the pain and start talking about how to heal the wounds.
Rep. Karen Foster, R-Augusta, is serving her first term as a state representative. She sits on the Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry Committee.