Hardly a day passes in Augusta that isn’t consumed with charges about welfare.
Despite the decibel level of those debates, not much actually gets done, primarily because the parties can’t agree about whether the system needs fixing.
It turns out that Maine actually has two welfare systems. One is for poor people. That’s the one that gets talked about all the time. The other is for people with lots of money and lobbyists in Augusta. That one’s kind of hush-hush.
Republicans love to assail the one for poor people, and pretend the other doesn’t exist. Democrats focus on what they call “corporate welfare,” and pretend the other one is perfect.
Each side has its preferred and scary bad guys who are picking your pocket. The Republicans’ favorite villains are able-bodied, shiftless ne’er-do-wells who’ve made a career out of milking taxpayers while playing video games and having babies. Democrats counter with cigar-chomping robber barons who employ armies of lobbyists to siphon your tax dollars into Wall Street accounts.
Naturally, both parties work feverishly to attack the welfare system they hate and defend to the death the one they love. It’s all terribly overblown, of course, but in both cases there’s more than enough smoke to suggest a fire, or at least slow-burning embers.
The simple truth is that we have problems with both welfare systems in Maine, but as too often happens in politics, simple truths are usually the first victims of partisan warfare.
Anyone who’s ever lived in real poverty knows there are problems with welfare, and there are people gaming the system. They also know that most folks on welfare are good people dealing with hard times while trying to work their way forward.
It’s also true that we have an overextended welfare system, made that way because for decades we’ve tried to fight poverty with programs rather than jobs. Having said that, the problems are still far smaller than Republicans contend.
It’s also true that we have a patchwork system of corporate welfare in the form of tax giveaways enacted over the past half-century, usually by people who knew too little about the economy and were eager to throw money at the problem of a weak economy without asking tough questions or demanding much in return.
What is stunning is how differently these two welfare systems are treated in Augusta.
Last week, Gov. Paul LePage pushed four relatively minor changes to welfare, but it was more than enough to garner headlines and outrage Democrats, who promptly took the bait.
Rather than blunting the issue by agreeing to fix whatever problems we have, they transformed a one-day story into a weeklong political debacle that made the party look defensive and indifferent.
First they attacked LePage’s motives, calling his proposals a campaign stunt, which of course they were. Then they downplayed the issue by saying it involved only a few million dollars. “Oh, what a relief!” you could hear cash-strapped Maine taxpayers saying everywhere.
Republicans gleefully pounced. In op-eds by both conservative and moderate Republicans such as Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, they accused Democrats of talking about welfare reform but doing nothing. By the end of the weekend, Democrats had retreated to supporting watered-down versions of LePage’s proposals, but by then the damage was done. Look for fliers in legislative districts around the state this fall that say: Democrats defend welfare fraud, oppose even the tiniest reforms.
Republicans, of course, are equally defensive when it comes to corporate welfare. While they’re quick to rage against “entitlement” programs for poor people, they act as though entitlements for well-heeled businesses are just fine.
The tax break mess is no small matter. By some estimates, we now spend more on meaningless tax breaks than we do on education. Some of those tax breaks have been on the books so long that nobody can remember why they’re there.
If we’re looking for fraud and abuse, maybe we should start spending as much time investigating corporate welfare as we do programs for poor people.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and co-author of an upcoming book titled “Maine’s Next Economy.” Email at [email protected]