Legislature accomplished much together, still more to do
With the first divided state government in almost 20 years, I was concerned about whether this year would bring the kind of partisan gridlock that makes Washington, D.C. go years without even passing a budget. Although many in the press jumped on a few partisan flare-ups, for the most part, we got a lot done together in this year’s recently-concluded session. However, there is still a long way to go to kick Maine’s economy into high gear.
One of my proudest moments came earlier this month, when Democrats and Republicans agreed on an infrastructure bond package. Democrats had wanted a large borrowing package to go to voters in June, while Republicans wanted a smaller, transportation-focused package to go to voters in November in time for the spring construction season. We ultimately agreed, within a few short days, on a $150 million bond package to support transportation and higher education infrastructure.
As a member of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, I was glad to see the passage of a responsible transportation bond, which the Department of Transportation is depending on for their 2014-2015 work plan. Agreement on this bond means that here in Searsport, we’re going to see an almost two-mile stretch of Main Street/Route 1 repaired — from Savage Road north to Station Avenue — along with many other projects across the state. I think we can all agree it needs it.
We also reached bipartisan agreement on a massive reform of our state’s outdated energy policy. With the 12th highest electricity rates in the nation and the highest dependence on expensive fuel oil for heat, we needed a change. The omnibus bill, LD 1559, facilitates the expansion of natural gas infrastructure throughout the state, helps make homes and workplaces more energy-efficient, and amends the charter of the Public Utilities Commission to give that agency a renewed focus on the cost of energy. I was proud to support this bill because it means more money in the pockets of Maine families.
In addition, Republicans and Democrats came together to solve the problem of Maine’s “skills gap.” The bipartisan Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future passed LD 90, a bill that helps workers go back to school to finish their degrees, creates new degree programs for high-demand jobs, reduces Community College wait-lists, improves credit transfers, and more. I voted for this bill because as a police officer, I saw too many kids get into trouble because they didn’t have the right educational or job opportunities.
There are, however, many more things we can do together as Republicans and Democrats to improve our state’s economy and provide growth and opportunity for Maine people.
One is to get our state’s finances in order. Every year, we face massive budget shortfalls. These problems culminated in a $500 million Medicaid debt to our hospitals that we finally just agreed to pay off. Every year, hardworking Maine taxpayers face the threat of higher taxes so the state can balance its budget, and our long-term debt and obligations are a weight on future generations.
Maine’s welfare agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) now consumes almost half the state budget and our Medicaid program has doubled over the past 15 years. We rank second in the country for welfare spending as a percentage of overall state spending.
Helping needy children, the elderly, and the disabled is one of the most fundamental functions of our state government, but the problem is that Maine’s extra welfare spending isn’t going to them. It’s going to able-bodied young adults while 3,100 of our neediest neighbors are stuck on DHHS wait-lists. We have the second-highest food stamp error rate in the nation and every day we see stories of welfare fraud in the news.
Unfortunately, the legislature this year stopped welfare reform in its tracks. It killed bills that would have prevented the use of food stamps to purchase alcohol, tobacco, and junk food. Bills to study disincentives in our welfare system and prevent serious drug criminals from receiving cash welfare were killed while a bill to repeal the two-year cap on methadone treatment was advanced.
This kind of spending isn’t just fiscally irresponsible and burdensome to hardworking taxpayers, it creates a culture of dependency and entitlement that weakens our state’s ability to move its economy forward. For Maine’s economy to be all it can be, everyone who is able to work should be expected to work, and we should keep our finances in good order.
I know that most of my colleagues believe in responsible budgets and reasonable public assistance, and I hope that next year, we can make those goals a reality with the same kind of bipartisanship that we showed on transportation, energy, and workforce issues.
Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, is serving his second term in the Maine House of Representatives, where he sits on the Transportation Committee.