March 4, 2011

Bill Nemitz: A pointed budget message hits the mark

Some might have looked at the long lines of people waiting to testify on Gov. Paul LePage's proposed budget and decided it wasn't worth it.

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Kelley McDaniel, who got the attention of lawmakers during a budget hearing Wednesday, is an award-winning librarian who also connects with students at Portland’s King Middle School.

2010 Press Herald file

After all, you can wait hours for your turn to speak.

And when they finally do invite you up to the microphone, you get only three minutes.

And while there may be strength in numbers, it's easy to wonder after a while whether those weary legislators on the Appropriations Committee -- or any of us, for that matter -- are truly capable of absorbing all that testimony over one full day, then another, then another ...

I got that feeling Wednesday afternoon as I sat at my desk with headphones on, listening online as a seemingly endless procession of Maine citizens decried all that's wrong with the governor's $6.1 billion spending package for the next two years.

Some, understandably, sounded nervous.

Others apologized in advance because they had colds.

Still others, bless them, tried to cram too many words into too little time and had to be gently coaxed into conclusion by Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the committee's co-chair.

Then along came Kelley McDaniel of Portland -- No. 48 on the day's speaker list.

She's a part-time librarian at King Middle School -- and a very good one at that.

She drove to Augusta with her 11-year-old daughter, Aedin, in tow because Aedin is on King Middle School's debate team, loves politics and dutifully met her mother's condition that she write a letter to each of her teachers explaining why listening to her mom testify at a state budget hearing was at least as important as a day in school.

Talk about a teachable moment.

If politics these days is all about what the experts call "driving the message," McDaniel spent all of her precious three minutes in the fast lane.

She told the committee that she recently won a national "I Love My Librarian" Award from the Carnegie Corp. and The New York Times -- an honor that included a check, made out to McDaniel, for $5,000.

"I plan to report that money on my income tax and I expect to pay taxes on it," she told the lawmakers. "Even though I donated the money in its entirety to the public middle school where I work."

You heard that right.

She gave the whole five grand, after taxes, to her school. If you live in Portland, that's your school, too.

It was only the beginning.

McDaniel said she's "happy to pay those taxes" because the way she sees it, taxes are "like membership dues" for being a citizen of this great state.

She said that while she gets lots of things (education, health and safety, arts and recreation) in exchange for those "dues," she realizes "I may not personally benefit from everything that tax money is used for."

She has no problem with that. As McDaniel put it, "I try to trust that elected officials will spend money to the best benefit of society and not just to a handful of individuals."

Then, without missing a beat, she turned her attention to the budget.

She talked about how, over there, the budget contains $200 million in tax cuts -- including an expansion of the estate-tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million -- that largely would benefit Mainers who aren't exactly scraping to get by.

And how, over here, that loss of state revenue is more than offset by $413 million in various curtailments on benefits earned by retired state workers -- many of whom, like McDaniel has at King Middle for the past 11 years, served long and nobly in Maine's public schools.

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