If you had joined Maine’s leading liberals in kicking off the legislative session at their annual public-policy gab-fest in early January, you would have been excused for thinking the conservatives were actually the hosts. The conference, put on by the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP), seemed more like a cheerleading session organized by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, MECEP’s opposite-number conservative think tank.
The talk echoing through an Augusta Civic Center cavern was about reducing property taxes, shrinking or holding the line on state-government spending, eliminating the top state income-tax bracket (it discourages the well-off), and making strategic “investments” — the au courant word required to justify state spending — to help the corporations bring us prosperity. The conference title was “Prosperity Maine.”
By contrast, there was almost no talk about improving state services to the needy, even though providing such services is basically what state government does: helping the poor, sick, elderly, mentally ill, developmentally disabled, etc. No participant appeared upset by the inhumane conditions, especially for the mentally ill, in Maine’s prisons and jails. Only a few mentions occurred of the environment — and then only in economic-development terms.
Although the conference was keyed to recently re-elected Democratic Governor John Baldacci’s new budget, no one questioned his idea to save money by putting the foxes in the same barn with the chickens — combining the business-promotional Department of Economic and Community Development with the business-regulatory Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. In his budget message to the Legislature a few days earlier, Baldacci had candidly admitted that the new Department of Commerce would be “dedicated to the needs of business in Maine” — while, actually, the regulatory agencies are supposed to be dedicated to the needs of Maine’s public against the appetite of business.
Most noteworthy, there was hardly any mention of what was once the great Maine liberal cause célèbre, the Dirigo Health Plan, announced by Baldacci with great fanfare four years ago as the means to cover the then-140,000 citizens not covered by health insurance. This state of affairs was once a scandal, but apparently it is no more, even though Dirigo has sheltered only 9 percent (12,000) of 140,000, and there were more people in Maine in 2005 without health insurance than in 2004, according to the US Census Bureau (12.3 percent as opposed to 11.6 percent) because many with Dirigo had switched from other insurance plans.
The talk at the conference was so overpoweringly of the need to lower property taxes that you would have been forgiven if you believed that the tax-and-spending cap known as TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights ballot measure, had won in November’s election. It was handily defeated, 54 to 46 percent. (And in 2004, the “Palesky” property-tax cap had also been beaten back — by an almost two-to-one margin.)
The Democrats lost, too, right?
You would have been forgiven, too, if you believed the Democratic Party had been weakened in the election, instead of adding almost 15 seats to its House majority (now 88, to 61 Republicans and 2 independents). In the Senate, the Democrats have only a one-seat margin, but several Republicans often vote with them. The Democrats seemed weakened because their legislators at the conference sounded very much like the few Republicans present.