Cebra: Has good government become bad politics?
By Rich Cebra
This will be my last column for The Bridgton News as an elected official. Due to term limits, my time in the Maine Legislature has come to an end. I will always be grateful to the citizens of my district for giving me the opportunity to serve these last eight years. But before I go, let me leave you with a few thoughts about the recent election.
When the dust settled, Republicans had lost their majority status in the Maine House and Senate. Several reasons have been cited for this unexpected reversal. Some people say it was at least partly a referendum on Governor LePage. Others say the same-sex marriage referendum brought out a large number of people, mainly students, who ordinarily don’t vote.
Some point to the huge amounts of outside money that poured into the Maine Democratic Party, enabling them to outspend Republicans in House races by a three-to-one margin. Other folks say the avalanche of negative and baldly untruthful advertising by Democrats turned the tide by swaying voters who didn’t know the actual facts.
And, of course, media bias played a huge role in the Republican defeat. What are we to expect when the largest newspaper chain in the state is owned by Wall Street billionaire Donald Sussman, now married to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree?
It’s bad enough that the vast majority of reporters and editors are hard-core Democrats. But when a person like Sussman owns the media and also pours huge sums of money into political campaigns, we face a much more disturbing situation. Maine has never before encountered anything like this, where a person with unlimited funds can basically buy elections. We’re used to this at the national level — President Obama raised $1 billion for his campaign. However, when big-time Wall Street money begins seeping into local legislative races, Maine has profoundly changed.
All these factors played a role in the eventual outcome, but there’s something else at work, both in Maine and nationally. Policies geared to free enterprise are increasingly rejected by people, who prefer that government take care of them. How else can we explain the victory of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney? Obama took a bad economy and made it worse, while presiding over a gigantic welfare expansion in the face of a $16 trillion national debt. With the country hurtling toward economic disaster, he runs up stupendous annual deficits, with no end in sight, and seems not to care. Yet, he beat a successful businessman and governor who laid out a plan to avert a financial collapse. It didn’t matter. Obama promised more freebies to the takers, and they carried him over the top.
The situation in Maine was similar. When Republicans took over the legislature in 2010, we discovered enormous problems that the Democrats had ignored over their 40-year reign.
Our health insurance system was among the worst in the nation, imposing backbreaking costs for coverage. We fixed it by moving our system closer to the American mainstream. Rates for small groups and individuals are already moderating or dropping.
The burgeoning debt in the public pension system for teachers and state workers threatened to cannibalize funding for education and MaineCare. We fixed that, too, by curbing cost-of-living increases and raising the retirement age to 65. Maine taxpayers will save more than $3 billion as we pay off this “unfunded liability,” and the retirement system is financially stable over the long haul.
Maine’s income taxes were too high, an albatross around the neck of job creators and regular citizens. We responded with the largest tax cut in the state’s history, dropping the top rate from 8.5% to 7.95% and increasing amounts for standard deductions and personal exemptions. Middle-income families will see income taxes drop by over $300 starting next year, and 70,000 low-income filers will now pay zero income tax.
Business owners told us that Maine’s wild jungle of regulatory red tape was the biggest impediment to business success and job creation. We solved that by sending a legislative task force that held hearings all over the state. The resulting legislation eliminated regulations that were redundant, unnecessary or counterproductive. That overhaul changed the whole regulatory climate, so that now regulators and the regulated work towards mutually beneficial outcomes.
Moreover, we reformed the unemployment system to root out fraud, modernized the workers compensation system to help get workers back on the job without making lawyers rich, and exposed the crook running the Maine Turnpike Authority. He’s now doing 42 months in prison for felony theft.
These changes were aimed at our central goal — economic revival and job creation. Positive results came quickly. In the 10 years before Republicans took control of the legislature, Maine created a grand total of 56 net new jobs, while the population grew by 44,000. In the first year of Republican pro-growth policies, Maine employers added 7,400 jobs.
In short, Republicans did the “heavy lifting” that the Democrats had avoided while they built Maine’s enormous welfare system. In return, the voters kicked us out in favor of the same people who created our economic mess. That’s why I’m wondering if good government is bad politics. If that’s the case, I fear for our future.
Rich Cebra (R-Naples) represented District 101, which consists of Naples, Casco and Poland.