Insurance law likely vulnerable to people’s veto

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There were smiles all around in Augusta on Tuesday, at least on Republican faces, as Gov. Paul LePage signed the controversial health insurance overhaul bill.

But the real battle — to convince ordinary Mainers that this reform will improve their lives — has not yet begun and the ultimate outcome is far from certain.

At least one group, the Maine People’s Alliance, is considering a people’s veto campaign to overturn the new law.

And the way this law was crafted leaves it very vulnerable to ultimate rejection.

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This scenario, in fact, reminds us of the bill Democrats passed last year that would have significantly reduced the state’s income tax rate, largely by taxing a broad array of other services, particularly those aimed at tourists.

This shift was recommended by the 2006 Brookings Institution Report and advocated by GrowSmart Maine.

Studies showed that 80 percent of Mainers would end up paying less in tax as more of the burden was shifted to visitors.

Respected economists agreed, and the vote to cut taxes was hailed as the “Maine miracle” by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Yet, soon after Gov. John Baldacci signed it into law, it was repealed at the polls.

The campaign against it, led by several legislators, effectively used scare tactics and misinformation, and its supporters failed to run a decent counter-campaign.

At the time, we called it a “victory for demagoguery over dispassionate truth.”

Supporters of the new health care reform law have left themselves wide open for a similar campaign that just may succeed.

Voters are easily frightened by anything new and unfamiliar. Let’s look at the bullet points the opposition will use:

• The law imposes a “new tax” on people already struggling to pay for their own health care.

• It establishes an “individual mandate” that we pay this tax, not unlike President Barack Obama’s health insurance mandate.

• It shifts health insurance costs to middle-aged and elderly Mainers, who may end up paying four times as much for coverage.

• It raises rates in rural areas and will force people in rural Maine to travel long distances for their health care.

• It was “ramrodded” through the Legislature and under the “cover of darkness.”

• It was rushed to passage without sufficient time for debate and analysis.

• It will enrich insurance companies, which supported the bill.

• It was not supported by Maine’s business community, which called for more analysis.

If opponents are able to raise enough cash, you can only imagine the TV commercials that will result: Older Fort Kent couple sitting at their kitchen table, fretting over their hefty new insurance statements and talking about driving to Bangor for treatment.

Are the fears justified?

Well, here’s the real problem with the new law: NOBODY KNOWS.

Republicans refused to wait for a Bureau of Insurance analysis of the bill before rushing it into law. That department’s respected director even resigned.

They will have no research to counter opponents’ claims other than, “Trust us, it will work.”

People’s vetoes are, of course, a terrible way to make complex public policy.

Unfortunately, supporters of the new law will find fear is easy to instill and difficult to dispel.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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