AUGUSTA – A new Maine coalition opposed to President Bush’s calls to privatize Social Security announced itself Wednesday and began collecting petition signatures to send to Maine’s congressional delegation.

The Social Security Works coalition said it will travel throughout Maine encouraging residents to oppose privatizing Social Security.

Groups within Social Security Works include the Maine People’s Alliance, Maine Council of Senior Citizens, Maine Women’s Lobby, Maine Council of Churches, Maine Citizen Leadership Fund and the Maine AFL-CIO.

Wednesday was the first time the coalition spoke out. The coalition will continue to hold meetings in the months ahead, said Neena Quirion of the Maine Council of Senior Citizens. Jake Grindle, Androscoggin Valley community organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, said his members have already begun knocking on doors in Lewiston and Auburn to talk about the president’s Social Security plans.

Quirion called the fight over the future of Social Security “the most important debate on a domestic issue in the last 50 years.” The proposed change would “weaken Social Security to the point of replacing it with an untested and untried privatization scheme which would leave retirees, survivors and the disabled with cuts in benefits, and future generations of workers with new debt,” she said.

Kip St. John of the Maine Center for Economic Policy called the president’s plans “a screwy idea” and “bad” for Maine.

“Fifty years from now we’re going to have a little bit of (a deficit) problem in Social Security, so how is the president proposing to fix it? He’s going to take money away from Social Security and put it in private accounts. That makes the Social Security problem worse! It doesn’t make any sense. That’s why we’ll defeat it. But it’s important to fight it.”

Compared to other states, Mainers are more dependent on Social Security because Maine incomes are lower, and many don’t reach retirement with a lot of wealth, St. John said.

Barry Flynn, communications director for the Maine Republican Party, called the coalition’s opposition to the president’s plan “premature.”

“The president has asked Democrats and Republicans to work on this issue. He’s called for action to be taken” to help solve a future Social Security deficit. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when,” Flynn said. “This is about making the system permanently solvent.”

Allowing people to invest Social Security money in the stock market could be a way of solving that deficit by allowing people to control their retirement money, Flynn said. In future decades there’ll be fewer workers supporting more retirees.

“Something needs to be done,” he said. “The system’s headed for bankruptcy,” he said. “Democrats are going to have to get a better message than saying no,” Flynn said.

Maine Democratic U.S. Reps. Tom Allen and Mike Michaud are opposed to privatizing Social Security.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is leery. “She doesn’t oppose the idea of personal accounts,” said her spokesman, Preston Hartman, but she’s against diverting payroll taxes into personal accounts. “She doesn’t want to undermine the Social Security system,”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was not saying yes or no, but said any changes must ensure Social Security continues to provide a guaranteed benefit regardless of fluctuations in the stock market.

Even though the president’s proposals would not directly affect her, Nellie Cyr, 83, a Chateau Cushnoc resident, was among the first to sign the petition opposing privatization, saying Social Security is too important to people like her.

“I worked in the mills for 17 years, I worked at Kirschner for 10 years. I paid my Social Security. I think I deserve what I get,” Cyr said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.