In an ideal world, everyone who received government assistance would be legally entitled to it. But if that world ever existed, it is long gone.
Today, inmates steal other people's identities and tax refunds — from inside prison!
Phony disaster victims use their federal cash aid for tattoos, strip clubs and bail money.
And the occasional lottery winner is then arrested for welfare fraud.
It's enough to make an honest person set their hair on fire and run screaming from the room.
Well, OK. Let's just say it is extremely upsetting.
Last week, Labor Commissioner and former Auburn resident Robert Winglass said his agency is quickly moving to implement a new law to combat unemployment compensation fraud.
Winglass said he believes more people are abusing the system than we realize.
He's undoubtedly right.
But amidst all this cracking down, we are puzzled about the relative lack of meaningful action on what is likely a significant tax-fraud problem — phony enrollments under Maine's Tree Growth Tax Law.
The program was adopted in 1972 to give tax breaks to property owners who engage in sustainable forestry management. That means cutting trees and selling them for pulp or lumber, and doing it responsibly.
It's an excellent idea, helping many people keep their land and fostering the retention of our forest products industry. But the law is broken in ways that allow very wealthy individuals with large coastal and lakefront properties to drastically slash their property taxes.
"What coastal communities have seen is that it's become a scam," Terry Towne, an assessor in Lamoine, told a Sun Journal reporter.
"It's really a welfare system for larger shore front property owners. Everyone else in the community has to make up the difference."
In many cases, the evidence of abuse seems nearly irrefutable.
It was revealed in one highly publicized case that state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin had 10 acres of his ocean-front estate in the Tree Growth program, yet a deed covenant apparently prohibited him from harvesting trees.
Not that he would have wanted to, since the trees formed a natural privacy barrier between his compound and the public on a dramatically situated peninsula in Georgetown, Maine.
Poliquin had been paying taxes of $30 or less per year to the town for his 10 acres, which are valued at $943,000.
Only when this became a political embarrassment did Polquin shift his woodlot into an Open Space tax designation — which also allowed him to skip paying his back taxes.
And how is this less reprehensible than a single mother with two children caught abusing the food stamp or welfare programs? Either way, the public treasury is out some money.
Poliquin has steadfastly refused to explain his tax break or reveal his forestry plan, and is even seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Other examples abound, including off-coast island property owners who do not cut their trees and could not economically ship them to market, yet receive large tax breaks.
The law is laughably, perhaps intentionally, vague, and many local assessors seem wary of offending wealthy property owners. Meanwhile, some say the Maine Forest Service has no appetite for offending powerful people or in contesting the lawsuits they might file.
But the biggest problem with the law is its secrecy. Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant, but the public is not allowed to see the forestry plans that are pushing up their own property taxes, to ensure they are proper plans and are being complied with.
The secrecy clause is intended to protect confidential business information of large, commercial timber companies, although New York and Vermont open all similar forestry plans, small and large, to public inspection.
The discrepancy here is very unsettling. The Legislature seems eager to prosecute poor people for getting benefits they do not deserve, but has set up a vague tax-break law in a way that practically invites abuse.
If we have any self-respect as a state, we should hold everyone to the same high standard. That we do not in this case is an embarrassment that should be corrected.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.