A shot at progressive reform

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  December 31, 2012

Although Katz is now the assistant minority leader, he represents Augusta and some surrounding towns where a good chunk of the 12,000 employees live whom the MSEA represents. For Katz and some other Republican legislators, being identified as an ally of the flagrantly right-wing LePage would not be politically astute. Also, LePage's blunt personal style has not endeared himself to GOP lawmakers.

Other possible Senate Republican crossovers mentioned are James Hamper, Brian Langley, and Patrick Flood, the latter experienced in cooperating with Democrats in his previous service as Appropriations Committee House chairman.

HEALTH-CARE AND TAX REFORM

The most important issues on which independent and crossover votes will be crucial are health care, tax rates, and tax breaks. Which is to say: the budget. In it, the fate of many issues is decided.

Democrats have already announced they want to revisit the health-insurance "reform" passed by the previous Legislature. It supposedly opened up health insurance to consumer-friendly competition.

Instead, Democrats say, it resulted in pernicious rate hikes for older, rural, and small-business purchasers and a $4-per-month tax on policyholders to benefit insurance companies. The tax established a pool of money to insure those whose costs are highest. Joe Ditré of Consumers for Affordable Health Care calls it "a ratepayer bailout of insurance companies."

Democrats may move to reverse LePage's refusal to accept Obamacare's expansion of MaineCare (Medicaid) coverage for lower-income people — a refusal despite the fact that the federal government will pay for almost all of the increase.

The political dynamic governing the session, says a progressive House member, Democrat Adam Goode, will be his party's desire to restore health care for the needy versus the GOP desire to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy. Last session, Republicans pared down the MaineCare rolls, and two years ago (with some Democratic help) they cut state taxes, including big reductions for the well-off.

But since the Republicans didn't cut enough state services to make up for the revenue losses, they also helped create big "shortfalls" in money expected to be available for state services. This fiscal year the shortfalls will amount to at least $135 million — and maybe much more.

That sum includes a $100-million, not-fully-explained shortfall recently announced for the Department of Health and Human Services, which along with the feds pays current MaineCare recipients' medical bills.

For the two-year budget beginning next July, much larger shortfalls are projected — $880 million is one estimate, hundreds of millions of which are due to the GOP tax cuts.

On the issue of tax cuts, "the Democrats believe we need to move the economy from the middle out, not from the top down," says Seth Berry, the new House majority leader.

Ben Chipman thinks the Legislature "could act quickly" to eliminate the tax cuts on the rich that the Republicans voted in, most of which take effect January 1. "President Obama's message is that the wealthiest among us have to pay their fair share," says the MSEA's Quint — noting that the president won re-election with this message.

Quint also notes that LePage and Republican legislators not only cut income-tax rates, but also the "circuit breaker" Property Tax and Rent Refund Program benefitting middle- and lower-income people. At the same time, they increased the estate tax exemption, benefitting millionaires. These actions may be revisited.

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