Friday, March 7, 2014
Joseph R. Reisert
In any election season, the candidates for federal office get the most attention. But it's the other election, the one you don't hear so much about on TV, that you can do more to affect and whose results will more directly affect your life -- the election of a new state Legislature.
No, the Legislature can't declare war, and it can't do anything about the national debt, but it does raise and spend here in Maine more than $6 billion in its two-year budget.
Its biggest expenses are on education (about half the budget) and on Medicaid and other social services (roughly another third of the budget). On top of that, there is another $600 million-plus in the state highway fund's budget.
By setting tax rates, controlling spending and setting regulatory policy, the Legislature determines whether our state will be an attractive place to live and work or whether its policies will push people and businesses away.
In 2010, after decades of Democratic dominance, Maine sat unhappily near the bottom of state rankings for business-friendliness and near the top of rankings for taxes. We had become a slow-growth, rapidly-aging state in decline.
In 2010, Mainers voted for change. They elected Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature for the first time in almost 40 years. And on Tuesday, all 35 seats in the Senate and all 151 seats in the House of Representatives will once again be on the ballot.
That means that on Tuesday, voters will have the choice to continue with the Republicans' agenda to reform our state and to reinvigorate its economy, or to return to the failed policies of the past.
Consider some of the achievements of the new Republican majority in the 125th Legislature:
They enacted a series of measures to simplify and reform business regulations. The first such measure -- and it was the new Legislature's first priority (L.D. 1) -- eventually was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Making the state more welcoming to for business is essential if we are to achieve the economic growth that we need to enable more people to find jobs and to become economically self-sufficient.
On the fiscal side, the Republican Legislature passed a budget that cut taxes for everyone. Their tax package reduces the top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to just below 8 percent; it simplifies the code by moving from four tax brackets to three; and it increases the amount of income exempt from the income tax from $21,000 to a little more than $35,000.
What that means is everybody who paid income taxes under the old rules benefits. The hope is that as our taxes become more competitive, the state's economy will revive.
To rein in spending, the Republicans have taken steps to reform our state welfare programs, which had become unsustainably expensive. Though some Democrats self-righteously sneer that Republicans are heartless, the truth is that people in both parties want to do everything that can be done to help people in need. It's just that Republicans and Democrats disagree about how best to help.
Democrats in government have advocated expansive programs of benefits that spend as much as possible today to help today's poor. To spend so much, taxes must be high -- which discourages business, which makes jobs scarce and increases need -- producing a vicious cycle of lob losses and increasing welfare caseloads.
Which describes our state's trajectory pretty well in recent decades.
Republicans have made some difficult choices to limit benefits now, to focus today's resources on the most needy, with the aim of promoting economic growth.
When there are more jobs, there will be less need. When there is a more robust economy, there will be more resources available to help those who are in need.
This is, we believe, the long-term and sustainable way of doing the most good for the most people.
To improve Maine's ability to educate citizens and workers for the future, the Republican Legislature enacted significant educational reforms, opening the door -- finally -- to charter schools and creating a new system of teacher evaluations that will empower school systems to take teacher-effectiveness into account when they are forced to cut staff.
After only two years, these and the many other Republican reforms I haven't had space to mention, are only starting to work. But we know, from decades of experience, that the Democrats' alternatives end in stagnation and decline. We can either learn from that experience, or doom ourselves to repeating it.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.