How Dems won by losing the education surtax

I’ll admit it — when the Democrats picked Rep. Sara Gideon to be House Speaker, I was disappointed. Why?

I’ve been involved with life around the poverty line for most of my own adult life for one reason or another. Too, too much first hand experience.

Because of this experience, I’ve had frustrations with governance over vulnerable populations under both the Baldacci and King administrations. Then came LePage and his entirely different style of mismanaging vulnerable populations, prompting a whole new set of frustrations.

These very sets of frustrations are part of what eventually led to me blogging. A friend had been prompting me to return to creative work, while my frustrations with governance were bubbling over. The death of that friend, the desire to follow through on his advice, and my uncontainable level of frustration came together in op-ed pieces cutting apart LePage policies. 

(It’s okay not to click on that provided hyperlink — my early BDN stuff is pretty cringeworthy in hindsight.)

My greatest frustration under the LePage administration has been that each budget cycle feels like he and then-commissioner Mary Mayhew were moving social service programming closer and closer to slow death by suffocation. And the correlating legislatures failed to loosen the tightening noose.

Enter Gideon on a steep learning curve with a pretty rowdy bunch of colleagues in her chamber.

And a budget proposal full of further suffocation measures by the LePage/Mayhew team that left me begging for mercy … and frothing with frustrations. My expectations were very low as far as outcomes for Maine’s most vulnerable were concerned.

Fast forward over a whole bunch of unnecessary partisan drama and foot dragging, a ridiculous budget process, and a state shutdown. The dust clears, and low and behold Maine’s vulnerable came out alright.

Inhumane ideas like lowing the Mainecare eligibility for working parents to 40 percent of poverty were no where to be found. Gone were inhumane cuts for immigrants and to General Assistance.

I would have considered merely stopping the death by suffocation social service agenda a success on its own merits. But there’s more, and not just the increase in compensation for direct care workers. There’s an indexed 20 percent increase in TANF benefits and other improvements that will benefit Maine’s poor families with children.

I was blown away and had to know how any of that could have possibly happened while LePage was still in office.

I got a chance to find out when I talked to Gideon’s communications director, Mary-Erin Casale and policy analyst Molly Bogart.

Casale said the TANF increase would bring a family of three from $485 a month — a figure that hadn’t changed in 15 years — to $582 a month. She described the budget process as “very challenging, grueling,” especially as things moved toward the shutdown and House Republicans and LePage were making last minute demands after House Democrats and the Senate had reached a compromise.

Casale said she didn’t think “anybody believes it’s a perfect budget,” but that Gideon felt strongly that “closing the budget is a public service and is about compromise, especially under this administration.” She said their team is proud of that work.

When we talked about what made this budget cycle different in terms of outcomes for the poor, Casale and Bogart credited Gideon’s effort to use the 3 percent surtax issue as leverage. Eliminating that particular funding source for education as approved by voters last November had become a focal point for Republicans.

In exchange for its elimination Gideon and other Democrats were able to make gains for Mainers in need.

Bogart and Casale explained that Gideon pushed to access $150 million in unspent TANF funding in targeted ways for families with children. Gideon had introduced a piece of legislation called LIFT and aspects of it survived to become law.

Casale said with “one in six children in Maine living in deep poverty” Gideon wanted to make improving their lives a focal point of Democratic policy measures.

Bogart credited Reps. Drew Gattine (Appropriations committee) and Richard Malaby (Health and Human Services committee) for working across the aisle collaboratively. She spoke highly of Sen. Joyce Maker, as well, who represents communities in economically struggling Washington County and co-sponsored the LIFT legislation.

So take comfort all ye progressives angered by the loss of the 3 percent surtax! By losing that battle, there was so much to be gained. I’ll close with a bullet list provided by Casale that highlights the achievements.

LIFT Initiatives

–          20% TANF benefit increase, plus inflation going forward

–          $3 Million for LIHEAP heating assistance through housing authority

–          Increased accessibility to housing special needs vouchers by decreasing the percentage of income spent on housing threshold from 75% to 50%

–          $6 Million for a 4 year transportation program to connect TANF-eligible families with reliable cars


HHS Initiatives

·         Direct Care Worker Investment: Secures $14.25m additional funding for the direct care workforce which serves seniors and Mainers with disabilities.

·         Protects vital services: Rejects damaging cuts to Public Health Nurses and MaineCare.

·         Protects investment in Head Start: Giving more young Mainers an opportunity to thrive as children, and later as productive adults.  

·         Improves disability services: Doubles the number of hours for Mainers who can receive services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities under the Section 29 waiver.

·         Funds Rural Hospitals: Rejects cuts to reimbursement rates for Critical Access Hospitals who serve most of Maine’s uninsured throughout the state. This ensures that Critical Access Hospitals will continue to be reimbursed at a higher rate for the work they do and the people they serve.

·         Blocks devastating cuts to behavioral healthcare: establishes a moratorium on reimbursement rate cuts for behavioral healthcare services. Without the moratorium, cuts would have decimated group homes, healthcare providers and vulnerable Mainers who depend on their services.     

List provided by Mary-Erin Casale, communications director for House Speaker Sarah Gideon.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.