March 17, 2012

Our View: Maine cities would pay price for budget cuts

Shifting the General Assistance burden onto service centers does not fix the problem.

Once again, Gov. LePage proposes to fix a problem by pretending that it doesn't exist.

First, in response to an explosive increase in the cost of health insurance, he proposed dropping coverage under the MaineCare program for 65,000 people. Does it lower the state's insurance bill? Maybe. But it would also shift costs to hospitals, which in turn would pass them on to everyone who pays a private insurance premium.

This time it's the General Assistance program, which the governor is proposing to scale back in response to a surprise shortfall in the current budget. The biggest savings in the new proposal would be a cap on housing assistance, forcing landlords to put people out on the street if they can't get back on their feet in 90 days.

That might be good rhetoric, but it's bad public policy. Creating more homeless people might reduce one line in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, but it won't make the problem go away. It just makes it a problem for someone else.

General Assistance is a state-funded program that is administered on the municipal level. Eliminating state support means that the local governments will have to pick up the slack.

In this case, the problem will belong immediately to the biggest cities of Maine and their property taxpayers, but eventually to the whole state when the hubs of our economy slow down.

This is not a new problem: Since the recession, the cost of the social service safety net has increased steadily and predictably. There are ways to reduce those costs without making matters worse. Providers on the state and local level could be working together turning those ideas into policy.

Instead, the governor proposes cutting the budget with no deliberative process and with only a few weeks left in the legislative session. This is not the right way to address this complicated problem. He is in the second year of his administration, social service cuts have been a priority for him and he should not have waited until the last minute to launch this effort.

Cutting the budget doesn't make the problem go away. Legislators should recognize that shifting costs onto municipalities is the wrong way to go, and reject these cuts to General Assistance.


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