Players picked, agendas defined as state lawmakers get ready for 2015

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Now that state lawmakers have received their committee assignments, the planning starts for a new budget-making cycle and a host of other bills covering everything from tax policy to welfare reform that will play in the political arena for the next two years.

Well-rested and well-fed from the holidays, lawmakers should all have bipartisan visions dancing in their heads but the political reality is a more evenly divided House and a Senate that has shifted to the control of Republicans means Republican Gov. Paul LePage has the cards in his favor to push a more conservative policy agenda.

Democrats say the results of the 2014 elections, including LePage’s sweeping re-election victory and a shift to the right in the Legislature, does not a mandate make — but Republican leaders and conservative activists vigorously disagree.

Matthew Gagnon, the executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, told a recent Auburn audience that while Democrats still retain a majority in the House and Republicans will be unable to, “simply ram a conservative policy agenda through,” they will strategically court a half-dozen or more Democrats on key reforms. 

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Gagnon — recently hired to head the MHPC — is coming off a successful run in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Republican Governor’s Association, which strongly supported LePage in his recent re-election bid by spending more than $4 million campaigning for LePage and against his chief rival Democrat Mike Michaud.

Gagnon also promised the MHPC, which has several former employees now working in LePage’s administration, would have a larger presence in Augusta in 2015.

And like the pressure waves that build up in front of a jet about to exceed the speed of sound with the resulting “sonic boom,” the rhetoric coming from conservative Republicans and their supporters is an indicator of how fast they intend to move.

At the top of the list? Welfare reform.

“There is a very clear mandate on welfare reform,” recently elected state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said during a radio show interview Friday. Brakey is the newly appointed Senate chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services.

Brakey, serving his first term, said he has at least 20 bills he wants to offer in 2015.

Brakey said his top priority would be, “looking at ways to curb abuse and to reform these programs and make sure the limited resources we have are going to the people who really need it.”

Part of those reforms, from the conservative perspective, must also include ways to allow people to keep some state welfare benefits as they gradually become self-sufficient through work and training programs. 

Brakey and other Republicans have been using the term”welfare cliff” to describe the disincentive for those on welfare to get a job because when they do, they lose more in benefits than they gain in pay.

“If someone makes a couple dollars too much at a job, they lose their benefits, so you end up taking one step forward and five steps back,” Brakey said. “So finding ways that we can make that more of a slope than a cliff will be a priority.”

LePage is also largely expected to bring back reforms around Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, that were rejected by a Democratic majorities in 2014 — including placing limits on out-of-state use of the cards that are funded like a debit card with state-issued welfare funds.

Brakey also hinted at other proposals that would allow cities to refuse local “general assistance” benefits to those who are ineligible for federal funds, including immigrants without the proper documentation or those previously convicted of drug crimes.

“On this issue, it became very obvious and clear after the election that the conservative movement spoke broadly to the thoughts and feelings of Maine people,” Gagnon told his Auburn audience earlier in the month. 

But Democrats, including state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who is the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee opposite Brakey, will also want to see any focus on fraud also include the providers of health care services that are paid for with state and federal Medicaid dollars.

Democrats have argued that the amount of money being bilked from the system on that side of the equation far outweighs the amount of fraud being perpetrated by any individuals that may be inappropriately using their welfare benefits.

In 2014 Gattine was also among the most vocal critics of a $925,000 study paid for by the administration and aimed at evaluating all of the state’s welfare systems.

It was later revealed that some of the study had been plagiarised and the company that conducted it was essentially fired but not until after the state had paid the company more than $500,000.  Gattine was one of several co-sponsors of a bill that unsuccessfully sought to cancel the contract before most of its shortcomings were discovered.

In an email, Gattine said he was looking forward to working with Brakey and others on the committee noting he was approaching the upcoming lawmaking session with “optimism and enthusiasm.”

“I’m glad that others are voicing commitment to making the anti-poverty programs work better because I think we can all agree that this is an area where the department’s efforts need to show better results,” Gattine said.

Gattine said he was likewise looking forward to doing more to improve “program integrity” for the state’s social services safety net.

“Even though the economy continues to slowly recover, the situation for Maine’s low-wage workers remains dire,” Gattine said. “We have not bent the curve on poverty and we actually have more Mainers living in poverty while working full time than we did just a few years ago. The number of children living in poverty and going to bed hungry continues to grow and that’s not something we should continue to accept.”

Gattine said Maine is one of only two states in the country where the numbers without health insurance have increased since the enactment of the controversial Affordable Care Act. LePage in 2014 vetoed five bills that would expanded Maine’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, in order to cover about 70,000 more low-income residents.

But Gattine said he was heartened that LePage recently had acknowledged the problem of more Mainers lacking adequate health insurance.

“I am still hopeful that we will find a way to provide better health to all Mainers while strengthening Maine’s health care economy,” Gattine said.

Meanwhile, LePage’s budget proposal, which is due on Jan. 9, two days after he will be sworn in for his second term, is largely expected to include provisions aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, the state’s income tax. LePage has also suggested he would like to further reduce the amount of income tax paid by retirees on pensions and also wants to eliminate the state’s inheritance tax — known as the “death tax” to conservatives.

The latest state revenue forecast, issued in early December, showing the state’s finances on solid ground and moving towards a surplus approaching $113 million, will be in LePage’s favor. LePage’s effort to reduce the state’s top income tax rate by about 1 percent in 2011 is paying off, according to the governor.

“Reducing the tax burden on Mainers was a good, meaningful policy decision in 2011, and the state is seeing an uptick in income tax revenue as a result,” LePage said in a prepared statement following the December forecast. “Policies that reduce state spending, remove red tape and allow businesses to invest and create jobs are what we need to move Maine’s economy forward. Maine is open for business, and I am committed to improving the economy with strong growth in both the number of jobs created and the wages they pay.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

Sun Journal State Politics Editor Scott Thistle offers beyond-the-news observations on Maine politics.
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