During the recent debate over how we should pay back Maine’s hospitals, Gov. LePage has repeated a simple mantra: “We need to pay our debts.”
This phrase and this idea resonate deeply with me. Of course, we should pay what we owe. It’s a question of morality and of personal honor. On a very fundamental level, it’s the right thing to do.
I wonder, however, why Gov. LePage doesn’t seem to feel the same urgency about other debts our state owes. Two, in particular, come to mind.
In 2003 and again in 2004, Maine people voted by referendum that the state should increase funding for public schools and pay 55 percent of the cost of kindergarten through high school education. This has never happened, and over the past five years, Maine’s students have missed out on $537 million in education funding. Local property taxpayers have had to pick up some of the slack.
This debt wasn’t the result of a contract that some state department made with a company, nor was it a law or resolution passed by the Legislature. It was a decision made freely by the people of Maine.
Support for this state funding is based on the fundamental understanding that we should always work to make sure the next generation can do better than us. Parents of all backgrounds feel a deep-seated need to make sure their children have more opportunities and fuller lives.
Maine people still believe in this principle, both broadly and on this specific question of policy.
Even a recent poll conducted by the Maine Heritage Policy Center and the national Friedman Foundation (both conservative organizations arguing in favor of sending public money to private schools) found that 52 percent of Mainers believe we’re spending too little on public education. Only 12 percent believe we’re spending too much.
This is a debt we owe to our children and to the next generation, and we need to pay our debts.
On another front, right now Gov. LePage is refusing to accept federal funds to expand health care coverage in Maine. Thanks to Obamacare, the feds would pick up 100 percent of the cost over the next three years and at least 90 percent of the cost after that. This would cover 69,500 more Maine people with basic care.
Because Maine already covers some vulnerable groups, we would actually be able to transfer even more of the cost to the federal government. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that the state would save $690 million over the next 10 years.
According to a recent Harvard study in the New England Journal of Medicine, expanding coverage in this way has been shown to cause a decrease in mortality of 19.6 deaths per 100,000 state residents. We have a good idea, down to the decimal point, of how many lives we can save.
There’s a reason why our Founding Fathers placed “life” before even “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” in their list of our unalienable rights in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. It is a basic responsibility of our government to safeguard these rights and these lives.
That’s why even tea party governors across the country have already pledged to take the money and expand care, despite their personal antipathy toward President Obama and national health care reform.
“It’s a moral thing,” said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, explaining her decision.
This is a moral debt we owe to the people of our state who are struggling and are dying because of a lack of care. It’s also a debt we owe to ourselves in order to continue to call ourselves Americans, and we need to pay our debts.
The interesting thing about both of these debts is that, much like paying off a high-interest credit card, the money we spend now, whether state or federal, will save us much more in the long term.
Funding education is the surest path to creating future economic development, and expanding health care coverage means less disease, more prevention and fewer expensive visits to the emergency room. It will mean more people healthy enough to work, fewer families destroyed by injury, illness and crippling medical costs and far less future debt owed to Maine hospitals.
The idea of paying our debts resonates with Maine people because we recognize the same, simple moral principles and because we wouldn’t feel the same about ourselves if we didn’t honor the commitments we have made to one another.
I believe in paying all our debts. Does the governor?
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at: