They say that your liberties aren’t safe as long as the legislature is in session. Well, the 2013 legislative session in Augusta came to an end last month, and I am proud to report that your liberties are safe, and that we got some good work done with bipartisan cooperation. However, there is still a lot we can do next year to expand jobs and opportunity in Maine.
I was glad to work across the aisle with my Democratic colleagues on a number of issues this year. We didn’t get all of what we wanted, but we passed important reforms that, when the dust settled, were better than the status quo.
One was the omnibus energy reform bill, LD 1559, which received the near-unanimous support of the legislature and the endorsement of Governor Paul LePage. Maine has the 12th highest electricity costs in the nation and is more reliant than any other state on expensive fuel oil for heat.
After months of negotiation, Democrats and Republicans agreed on an energy package that will facilitate the expansion of natural gas infrastructure, help families and businesses convert to cheaper energy sources, and amend the charter of the Maine Public Utilities Commission to require that agency to put a greater focus on the cost of energy. I was proud to vote for this much-needed reform of Maine’s outdated energy policies.
Another reform addressed Maine’s workforce needs by helping to train young or unemployed Mainers for the jobs that are available. The bipartisan Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future spoke with businesses, students, and displaced workers and crafted a comprehensive bill that gears our education system toward matchmaking Maine workers with employers that are having a hard time finding the right people.
As someone who has worked for a company that relies on precision machinery, I understand how good a technical job can be and how hard it can be for machine shops to find people with the right training. That’s why I voted for LD 90, the workforce committee’s reform package, which helps older workers go back to school to finish their degrees, creates new degree programs for high-demand jobs, reduces community college waitlists, improves credit transfers and more.
Reducing energy costs and helping workers and businesses connect are two great examples of what can happen when Democrats and Republicans find common ground. I am glad that I was able to be a part of that process this year.
There are still many areas where we can work together to improve our state, however. Maine state government can do more to improve our economic competitiveness, reduce welfare dependency, and bring balance and responsibility to our state budget.
All three of these things are interrelated and you cannot solve one without solving the other two. Ever-growing welfare spending and abuse makes it harder and harder every year to balance the state budget and keep debt levels low, which in turn puts a bigger strain on Maine’s working people and local businesses to come up with the tax dollars to pay for it all.
Maine ranks second in the nation for welfare spending as a percentage of overall state spending. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Maine’s welfare agency, now consumes almost half of the state budget. Providing for the elderly and disabled who are unable to take care of themselves is one of the most basic and important functions of government. However, our record spending is not going toward them; 3,100 of the neediest Mainers are on DHHS waitlists, our food stamp error rate ranks second in the nation, and every day we see stories of welfare fraud in the papers.
All this extra spending not only creates an unhealthy culture of dependency and entitlement among able-bodied people, it puts a massive strain on our state budget. The state only recently paid off $500 million in unpaid welfare bills owed to Maine hospitals. Every year, DHHS generates a budget deficit that causes tax increases or reduces funding for other important departments.
Unfortunately, the legislature this year killed reforms that would have prevented food stamps from being used to buy alcohol, tobacco, and junk food, while raising taxes and spending more money than ever. This vicious cycle has to stop if we want to create a healthier economy that rewards hard work and makes people and businesses want to move to our state while ensuring that Maine’s finances are left in good condition for the next generation.
I hope to be able to continue the bipartisan work next year on these important fiscal and economic issues that must be addressed if we are to move Maine forward.
Rep. Tom Tyler (R-Windham) serves on the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee.