An audience that included vocal local Tea Party members debated the governor's budget proposal, soaring property taxes, education issues and business regulation with four of Knox County's Democratic lawmakers March 14 at Rockland City Hall.

The key message from the 25 people in attendance to their state representatives was they wanted to see cuts in state government spending rather than increases in taxes.

Meeting with them were District 47 Rep. Elizabeth Dickerson, a Democrat who represents Rockland both in the State House and as a city council member; State Sen. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland; Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston and Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport.

"All you people know how to do is raise taxes," said dairy farmer Lee Houghton of Union. "You don't know how to cut. The last meeting I went to, I think [Rep. Jeffrey] Evangelos [I-Friendship] was asking us why in hell did the governor pass this proposed budget where he's going to dump it back onto the towns. I know why, and you know why. Because the state Legislature hasn't got the guts to make any cuts."

He argued the school costs are very high and government needs to look at per pupil costs.

 

Democrats criticize LePage budget proposal

The Governor's proposed general fund budget for the 2014-2015 biennium is $6.3 billion.

Impact on property tax

  • More than $425 million impact on property tax payers and municipal budgets including…
  • Eliminating revenue sharing (portion of sales and income taxes paid to towns), $280 million
  • Shifting costs for teacher retirement to towns, $29 million
  • Reducing funding to school districts, $25 million
  • Eliminating property tax relief programs for anyone under 65, $82 million
  • Eliminating the BETR program and limits on the BETE program to manufacturing, $12 million
  • Reassignment of truck excise tax revenues away from towns to the State Highway Fund, $8 million

Impact on Safety Net

  • Eliminates all state funding for Maine's Drugs for the Elderly Program
  • Reduces State reimbursement to all municipalities for general assistance
  • Cuts Medicare Savings Program
  • Cuts Maine's rural critical access hospitals and reductions to hospital outpatient rates.

The cost of income tax cuts included in last year's budget are not paid for, thus contributing to more than $340 million, or 38.6 percent of the budget gap.

Provided by Sen. Edward Mazurek

Welsh asked him what he would cut. Houghton argued unionized workers were treated better than those in the private sector struggling to get by.

"I'm a dairy farmer," he said. "There are no benefits to being a dairy farmer other than that we get clean air."

Dickerson, who works as a teacher, said the supplemental budget that just went through cuts $12.5 million out of education. As a result, Regional School Unit 13 has to cut $151,000 this year, she said.

"The problem with this state is there is so much welfare and I think a lot of it is fraud," one woman in the audience said. "I go to Hannaford and shop in the morning. You ought to see the kids that come in there. I see 20-year-old kids, they all got these cards. They live better than I do. They ought to get out and get a job, I don't care if you have to work at McDonald's."

Kruger disagreed that government never cuts anything. The cuts come in the form of government employees losing their jobs, he said.

"All of these departments have functions," Kruger said. "These functions — they may not be important to every dairy farmer — but they're important to citizens all over the state of Maine."

He said the first cut is always those close to retirement, who take with them key knowledge needed to run departments. Then those left behind take on more responsibilities which they are not trained for. As a result, the departments become less functional.

Welsh added that taking things out of the state budget means cuts in services to Mainers.

One resident argued property taxes are too high and the worst tax to impose on people since senior citizens cannot increase their income to match the rising cost of their property taxes.

Kruger pointed the finger for anticipated increases in property taxes at Gov. LePage.

"And the budget as proposed by the governor includes a radical slashing of revenue sharing," Kruger said.

That money is collected at the local level and goes to the state and should come back to the towns and cities in the form of revenue sharing, Kruger said.

"If this budget passes, and I can't vote for it the way it is right now, the revenue sharing money stops coming to the cities," Kruger said. As to how much local governments would lose, he added "I can tell you in Thomaston it's half a million dollars."

Dickerson said the proposed revenue sharing cut would mean a loss of $1.1 million in Rockland.

Kruger pointed out near the end of the discussion that revenue sharing is not gone until the governor's budget is enacted as it is right now.

"I'm uncomfortable with the idea that we're going to do this in one swoop," Kruger said. "…It's just a radical, radical approach to funding."

Another resident from the audience argued that businesses in the private sector are making tough choices and cuts to their operations. Why can't the government do the same?

"I'd like to point out that just because someone works for the government it doesn't entitle them to a job over and above private business," she said.

People in private businesses are having salaries cut, jobs eliminated and those left have to take on more duties that had been done by those laid off, she said.

Dickerson said primary drivers of the costs going up are health insurance and fuel costs. She said the problem has been that we are not doing things in a sustainable way.

Kruger also argued the state needs to look at tax breaks going to special interests that could balance the budget.

Welsh said the Republicans have provided more tax breaks for those with high incomes than the middle class.

Questioned about LePage's plan to pay back Maine hospitals by contracting the operation of Maine's liquor distribution system, the Democratic legislators said they all want to pay back the hospitals. The question is how that should be accomplished. They also indicated the Legislature is close to a deal to do that. Welsh said it will be paid off in the next six months.

Kruger said the debt to hospitals is due to a bad funding system that has been done away with. In addition, he said much of the debt owed to hospitals has been paid back.

"It now appears almost inevitable that we will do it, and we will be doing it soon, and we will be doing it off the back of a new liquor contract," he said of the remaining debt to hospitals.

"Are we going to be happy for the next 10 years that we want people drinking heavily in order to take care of this hospital debt?" Kruger said. "I mean it seems to me you can draw a line between alcohol abuse and poor health."

He said he does not believe the state should be in the liquor business.

"The governor's deal actually requires the state of Maine to borrow money to pay the hospitals, so we're borrowing to pay a debt," Kruger said. "Not usually a good practice."

Dickerson said the value of the contract would be the collateral for the bond to pay the hospitals.

"But that adds interest to the total bill," Kruger said.

Horatio "Ted" Cowan said Maine is one of the worst places in the country to do business and the state is in an economic death spiral.

"The day is coming when you won't be able to raise taxes anymore, but you're going to have to lay off people," he said.

"We have to become our best cheerleaders from now on," Dickerson said. "We can't sit here and talk about how we're in death spiral mode. We can't sit here and think that the battleship Galactic is about to come down and implode upon the city of Rockland… We have got to start realizing that we can do this and that we are the people of Maine."

She said she is inspired by the kids she teaches in school who may someday solve these problems.

"We have got to stop bashing ourselves and stop sitting here and saying 'Oh my God, the world is about to end!'" she continued. "And we have to give those kids the potential to do whatever it is they need to do, and we have to love them and be there, and we have to just absolutely refuse to give up."

She said the state has unbelievable potential to do great things.

Doris Vertz of Union said she was concerned about education. She believed the policy is headed toward getting rid of the basics of reading, math and other subjects and delving into feelings.

Dickerson said educators are looking for ways to make teaching not just about the letter grade, but what the student actually learns. That's the move toward standards-based education.

"I'm not for any particular program," she said.

Cowan said he supports local control of schools rather than having curriculum decided at a national level.

Mazurek said when he taught school there was no hidden agenda. He simply taught American history.

Dickerson said the biggest problem is illiteracy and poor reading skills in students.

Again near the end of the meeting, a resident complained about welfare programs in the state of Maine.

"You're not listening," he said to the lawmakers.

"What do you mean we're not listening?" Mazurek asked. "We are listening!"

"That's not correct, sir," Kruger said. "That's why we're here."

"Ah baloney!" Mazurek said when another comment was made by the audience member.

Welsh said people are being heard and legislators are making tough cuts as they go through the budget.

Courier Publications News Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at 594-4401 or by email at ddunkle@courierpublicationsllc.com.