The loud business drumbeat

Who really cares about the poor, the sick, the elderly, or the mentally ill? Keep searching.
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  January 30, 2008

In case you ever hear differently
"We have a high percentage of people that are
severely mentally ill.” _Prisons chief Martin Magnusson.

"I think John Baldacci has been rather radical as a Democrat in putting forth these cost-cutting proposals.” _Martha Freeman, State Planning Office director.

Behind this legislative session’s discussion of consolidating state departments, which has become Governor John Baldacci’s agenda-setting, cost-cutting cause célèbre, there is a widely held view that state spending must be cut. This perception is shared by Democratic and Republican legislators. Democrat Baldacci also is leading a charge to cut costs by slashing state services for the elderly, the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the developmentally disabled. The majority legislative Dems do not share Baldacci’s enthusiasm for these cuts, but they seem resigned to them.

The spending debate is taking place because, in the foreground, there is a $100-million shortfall between budgeted state revenues and expenditures. But in the background there is an unmuffled “drumbeat for smaller state government and reduced taxes,” says state representative David Webster of Freeport, a Democratic member of the Appropriations Committee.

Webster was interviewed at the Maine Center for Economic Policy’s annual State Tax and Budget Conference on January 14, held in the middle of a blizzard at the Augusta Civic Center. It was attended by 75 government officials, legislators, and lobbyists. Fiscal alternatives such as raising revenue by reducing tax breaks for business special interests, Webster said, are not part of the drumbeat.

Why? Look at who is beating the drum. Besides Baldacci and like-minded Republicans, the band includes business organizations such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Although MECEP made sure conference participants were exposed to a different viewpoint — that Maine really isn’t that heavily taxed or spending isn’t that outrageous, considering similar and neighboring states — among the many at the conference expressing or assuming the conservative, corporate point of view was Richard Silkman, an economist and vice-president of the Maine Public Spending Research Group, a think tank funded by TD Banknorth, Dead River, the Olympia Companies, and other big-business heavy hitters.

Silkman’s thesis was that if we really want to cut state spending we must require more students for each teacher in the public schools, throw lots of students off the special-education rolls, and toss thousands of poor people off Medicaid (which Baldacci already is doing). The goal: to bring Maine’s education and Medicaid numbers down to national averages, which would do the lion’s share of cutting the state-government budget by $700 million, a sum which Silkman said would allow Maine taxes to be reduced enough to make us “competitive” with other states for business investment.

Only a few people at the conference spoke — hesitantly — of the importance of the social values behind our assumed excessive spending. Although in a broadcast on the morning of the forum a Maine Public Radio newsperson described MECEP as a “left-leaning” think tank, the group as well as the sum of the conference’s participants would more accurately be rendered as cautious moderates.

How to be an annoying reporter
Gather ’round, you whippersnapper cub reporters. Here’s how to piss off a member of the governor’s cabinet, one of those department heads that in Maine are quaintly called “commissioners.” Don’t be nervous; it’s good for you and them.

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