The unapproachable alternative

With compromises like the Appropriations Committee deal, however, "We are concerned that in the long run we're enabling this pattern," said Ben Chin of the Maine People's Alliance — a pattern that year after year "sets us up for losses."

The fact that Republicans now control the Legislature and the Blaine House makes some compromise by the Democrats inevitable. But Democrats have cards to play.

The Democratic administration in Washington has suggested it won't allow the state to cut MaineCare enrollment. If so, where will the cuts come from? The education budget? The GOP may not want to confront that question by itself in a majority-passed budget. If the Republicans go it alone, in the November election campaign the Democrats could portray the Republicans as irresponsible and cruel.

If Democrats in the House wanted to play hardball, with a goal of forcing a better compromise, they need only 51 votes of the 150 members (one seat is vacant) to block a two-thirds passage. Democrats have 72 members, and there is one Independent, who caucuses with them, Green-leaning Ben Chipman, of Portland. He has been active trying to sign up House members to an alternative to the Appropriations Committee compromise.

Any alternative necessarily has to do with — as legislators delicately put it — "the revenue side." A coalition of progressive organizations, Engage Maine, has suggested repeal of last year's income-tax cuts for families making more than $200,000 a year and a somewhat fuzzy tax increase on the top one percent of families. The group says the total collected from the two reforms would be $72 million a year.

The coalition includes the Maine People's Alliance, League of Young Voters, Maine AFL-CIO, several public-employee unions, Maine Council of Senior Citizens, Maine Council of Churches, and the Maine Women's Lobby. The Portland Catholic Diocese and the Maine Medical Association, the doctors' group — concerned about MaineCare payments to health-care providers being slashed — are also pushing these reforms.

But on February 10 Chipman said only 16 House members had agreed to support the Engage Maine alternative. On the same day a broader progressive coalition called Maine Can Do Better, of which Engage Maine is a member, issued a statement noting that, while the compromise is "deeply flawed," it "protects thousands" — suggesting backing for it.

Chipman was turning to the idea of offering an amendment to the Appropriations Committee bill that would delay all of last year's income-tax cuts. But he didn't have faith he would get much support from the Democrats.


The 'structural shortfall'

Using a buzz phrase like the old Augusta hand that he isn't, our uncompromising governor has been hollering about the "structural shortfall" in the state's finances. After billion-dollar and centimillion-dollar shortfalls year after year, probably every politician in Augusta would agree with him that the state's finances indeed have a structural problem: not enough money is being raised to cover services.

LePage's answer is to cut services, although as last year showed he's quite willing to cut taxes, too, setting up the need to cut services more. In the Republican lexicon, this strategy is known as "starving the beast" of government.

The Democrats' answer to the structural shortfall is, no, don't cut services — unless forced to by compromise. But don't raise taxes either. Maybe even cut taxes.

The GOP is overt in its anti-government attitude. But the Democrats are complicit in starving state services.

Although one may profoundly disagree with LePage's solution to the structural shortfall, at least he can add and subtract. A symptom of the Democrats' Multiple Personality Disorder is the inability to do simple arithmetic. And a lot of human beings suffer because of it.

Lance Tapley can be reached at lance.tapley@gmail.com.

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