“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” It’s a phrase coined by former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Put another way, it means never miss an opportunity to exploit a difficult circumstance for political gain.

This is precisely what Mike Tipping does in his recent commentary, “Health care cuts, tax cuts demonstrate skewed priorities” (Kennebec Journal Dec. 13).

Tipping would have us believe that the across-the-board tax cuts that were approved by the Legislature last session led to the current shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services. The attempt to connect the two is reckless, irresponsible class warfare at its worst.

The governor and the Legislature are currently faced with an unenviable task: finding a way to bridge a $121 million dollar gap in the DHHS budget for this fiscal year.

Unlike their counterparts in the federal government, Maine lawmakers are bound by the state Constitution to balance their books.

The position we find ourselves in now when it comes to DHHS is, unfortunately, nothing new. During the Baldacci administration, legislators passed 11 supplemental budgets, all of which required finding ways to cover Medicaid shortfalls.

Various approaches were used to bridge the gaps. Taxes were raised, money was taken out of the General Fund and federal stimulus money was used. These were temporary, one-time fixes that failed to address the real problem: an overburdened system that was paying out more than it was taking in and at an increasing rate.

Earlier this month, Gov. Paul LePage presented a proposal that not only would balance the DHHS budget but also would take steps to ensure that programs designed to protect Maine’s most vulnerable citizens are able to continue into the future.

The unfortunate reality is that achieving this goal will require re-evaluating eligibility requirements for those who use the system. The governor acknowledged that doing this would be painful for many Maine citizens.

At the heart of Maine’s current budget problem is the cost of Medicaid (MaineCare). Since 2002, the state’s population has grown by 7 percent. But enrollment in MaineCare has grown by 78 percent.

Maine insures its citizens through Medicaid at a rate that is 35 percent higher than the national average. The current path we are on is unsustainable, and ignoring the problem would be an irresponsible disservice to taxpayers and to the neediest Mainers who depend on the program.

While many Mainers will feel the pain of the proposed cuts, the bulk of those affected are childless adults who are not disabled. They are healthy 19- and 20-year olds, and parents whose incomes are 100 percent above the federal poverty level.

Tipping is correct in stating the Legislature recently passed the largest tax cut in state history. But suggesting that this will come at the expense of Medicaid recipients is a misrepresentation of the facts.

The DHHS budget that the Legislature will take up soon addresses the shortfall the department faces this fiscal year — from now through June 30, 2012. Even if the tax cuts didn’t exist, DHHS still would face the same problem.

In an attempt to fan the flames of class resentment, Tipping refers to much-needed tax relief as tax breaks for “the rich.” In fact, all working Mainers will be seeing some sort of tax relief as a result of the reforms.

About 70,000 low-income Mainers will no longer have to pay any state income taxes when the reductions go into effect. Also worth noting is the fact that these tax cuts passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature.

The more important point, however, is that taking away these tax cuts would do nothing to solve what has become an annual exercise in trying to plug holes in a bloated Medicaid system. Putting a Band-Aid on the problem by using funds from education, public safety and other vital state services is not a long-term solution.

Still, there is a lot to dislike in this budget proposal. Of particular concern are changes in services to the elderly and disabled. Members of my caucus are ready to begin the hard work of solving these problems by working with our Democratic colleagues.

In the short run, it will not be easy, but hopefully it will make the goal of saving the system for those who truly need it achievable.

Rep. Phil Curtis, R-Madison, is the majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives.

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