“Corporations have been enthroned. . . . An era of corruption in high places will follow and the money power will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people. . . until wealth is aggregated in a few hands . . . and the Republic is destroyed.”_Abraham Lincoln, 1864
In the eight years I’ve covered the State House for the Portland Phoenix, I’ve been struck by the depressingly constant themes: paralysis on tax reform; public aid for health insurance and heating oil that cruelly leaves many of the poor out in the cold; abuse of people in state institutions; deference by officials to companies menacing the environment; and the wastefulness, cronyism, and self-indulgence of politicians and upper-level bureaucrats.
In keeping with the season, a time for reviewing things, I looked back over my Phoenix stories in search of an explanation for this stagnant sameness. In my reading, I have discerned a similar miasma in other state capitals and in Washington, and that observation increased my curiosity.
Having written 161 stories since 2000, I had to neglect many subjects in my review, and I haven’t reported on every issue of significance, including many environmental threats; also, I am in the thick of my series on Maine’s prisons — which has revealed sickening abuse of prisoners — so it would be premature to evaluate that subject now.
But what I discovered in reexamining a few big issues may throw light not just on the past and present, but also on the future — including the upcoming legislative session.Tax reform/budget woes
THE ISSUE Despite forceful expressions of citizen unhappiness, Governor John Baldacci and the Democratic Legislature have failed to craft a fairer tax system — one that would be more “progressive,” based on the ability to pay, and that would avoid repeated cuts in services to the poor, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, and other disadvantaged people as the main answer to huge, continuous shortfalls between budgeted revenues and expenses. This is the Big Deal issue of state government.
THE STORIES My first story about Baldacci as governor — when he was inaugurated in 2003 — was about how this Democratic former congressman was really a Republican. He seemed far more interested in cutting state expenditures and taxes than in improving services and fashioning fairer taxes. Since then, as industries have continued to abandon Maine, I have written about how Baldacci and legislators ironically have rewarded the corporate sector by cutting its taxes and defending its tax breaks.
The Republicans, narrowly in the legislative minority throughout Baldacci’s tenure, basically have loved his attitude, although they complain he doesn’t go far enough in slashing spending and taxes. Democratic lawmakers are more responsive to the constituencies that bleed from his cuts, but only marginally so, and Baldacci can “convince” recalcitrant legislators with promises of support for their bills, with a piece of the budget pie, or with a hint of a future job.
The governor has considerable leverage over Democrats because on key issues he is a social liberal. So gay-rights lobbyists were marshaled to support his budget (in effect, its cuts) while he supported a successful gay-rights bill. Thus, professional-class Democratic activists and legislators were pitted against the economically less fortunate.