Douglas Rooks

Douglas Rooks

The latest version of the Republican plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act has cleared the House — with key assistance from Maine’s 2nd District Congressman Bruce Poliquin — and now has landed, with a thud, on the doorstep of the Senate.

While celebrated as a “win,” the actual product is even worse than the version Speaker Paul Ryan abandoned back in March. It was revamped to satisfy the most extreme portion of the Republican caucus, which objects to almost any government role in health care.

In doing so, it blew up the grand bargain by which, under the ACA, private insurance companies got access to 30 million potential new customers in exchange for abandoning the notorious “pre-existing condition” rules by which millions of Americans are rendered permanently uninsurable. Despite happy talk about high-risks pools, which have never worked, rest assured the new version will add substantially to the 24 million Americans the Congressional Budget Office projected would lose insurance under the original Republican plan.

The first Republican bill left even many Trump voters alarmed because, thanks to their votes last November, their lives could be made permanently worse. The Senate debate should be interesting.

In a larger sense, though, “repeal and replace” was never about health care. It was about taxes, and the $800 billion over 10 years Republicans want to remove from health care subsidies and return to the pockets of the rich who, by definition, don’t need government help to afford health insurance.

It was almost comical to hear HHS Secretary Tom Price say that, despite the missing $800 billion, no one would lose insurance. Really. If the government doesn’t pay subsidies to lower health care premiums, insurance will, again by definition, be unaffordable to millions of people; no magic dust can repeal the laws of economics.

How does this Washington charade relate to current budget negotiations in Augusta? Very closely, as it turns out.

Once more, the sticking point is the estimated $167 million a year that voters added to the income tax payments of Maine’s top 2 percent in a referendum last November, in order to fulfill the state’s long-time commitment to school funding that’s never been honored.

Over the past month, legislative Democrats have gone on the road for two dozen meetings around the state, presenting their ideas of what should be in the budget. They emphatically include the $167 million for schools raised by a 3 percent surtax on earnings above $200,000.

This makes perfect sense. The voters have already enacted this law, and it can’t be ignored because Republican leaders don’t like it. Yet that seems to be their position.

Democrats have, for the first time in years, provided a concise, clear position on budget issues well in advance of the final showdown in June. It includes substantial property tax relief in all major programs — not only full school funding, but increases in municipal revenue sharing; the “fairness” income tax credit, as the old circuit breaker is now known; and the homestead exemption, which lowers assessments for all resident homeowners and renters.

This was an important part of Democratic Party platforms from the 1950s through the ’90s, but practically disappeared after that. It’s good to see it back, especially because it makes good economic sense, and it’s what the voters actually want from state government.

From Republicans we have heard — silence. Other than objecting to the income tax surtax, they haven’t said much of anything about their budget priorities.

And no, it doesn’t count that Gov. LePage presented his budget back in January. That document is hard to take seriously, and, since the Legislature proceeded to enact biennial budgets in 2013 and 2015 without reference to the governor, was can surely expect the same in the 2017 budget, which is LePage’s last.

Congressman Poliquin adopted similar tactics in delaying any hint of how he’d vote on health care until the last possible moment, then assuring his constituents that the devastation the Republican plan would wreak on the 2nd District, the poorest in the Northeast, wouldn’t really happen.

Unlike the health care vote, however, this isn’t a simple matter of saying “yea” or “nay” to a bill whose outlines are reasonably clear. We have literally no idea of what legislative Republicans’ budget proposal looks like — what their priorities are, what elements it contains.

One plan is squarely on the table. Without another alongside it, we have no way to compare. If Republicans bring something out of the backroom at the last moment, it could backfire on them.

It will certainly not have any discernable public support. The clock is ticking, and it’s getting louder.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His biography, Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible, is now available. Comment is welcomed at [email protected]

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