Politics & Other Mistakes: Repeat performance

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Some people keep doing the same stupid thing over and over, even though it never produces the hoped-for results.

I could be talking about Gov. Paul LePage, but I’m not. Quite the contrary.

The Maine People’s Alliance is a liberal advocacy group with a long history of almost – but not quite – getting things done.

In 2015, it came close to electing one of its employees as mayor of Lewiston.

It’s fought in the Legislature for measures providing increased funding for child care and reproductive health, with results that could charitably be described as mixed, but more accurately termed unsuccessful.

On five occasions, it failed to convince lawmakers to override LePage’s vetoes of Medicaid expansion.

While the MPA gets credit for last year’s successful referendum raising the minimum wage, the section of the law eliminating the tip credit for restaurant and hotel workers was repealed by the Legislature.

But perhaps the alliance’s most spectacular failure came earlier this year, when legislators overturned another MPA-backed referendum imposing a 3 percent surcharge on the income-tax bills of wealthy people. The money from that tax hike on those making more than $200,000 a year was supposed to provide a big boost to education, but it was replaced by a one-time infusion of cash that amounted to less than half what the original measure promised.

This was predictable. The state Constitution says the Legislature can’t be bound by the results of a mere referendum. Thus, it was on firm legal ground in 2004 when it ignored an initiative requiring the state to pay 55 percent of the cost of local schools. Likewise, it was well within its rights when it totally rewrote the referendum-approved law legalizing marijuana, not to mention doing away with the tip credit and the 3 percent soak-the-rich tax.

When it comes to making laws, the Constitution trumps the ballot box. That’s reality. But as previously noted, the MPA has a less-than-stellar record of acknowledging that particular state of existence. So, in September the group launched another petition drive to put yet another tax-surcharge question on the ballot. Because, hey, why wouldn’t it work this time?

If the alliance can gather just over 61,000 signatures of registered Maine voters (and if there’s one area where the MPA has demonstrated considerable skill, it’s convincing people to sign petitions), a measure will appear on the November 2018 ballot calling for the creation of the “Home Care Universal Trust Fund.” That’s the snazzy name of a program that pays for at-home health care for elderly and disabled people so they don’t have to be institutionalized.

Nobody could possibly be against that, since it’s both humane and saves money. Except that to save money, you’ve got to spend money. Home care may be cheaper than nursing homes, but it still requires a considerable expenditure. Providing this service to everyone in the state who needs it will cost something north of $130 million a year. And the price tag will only increase as the population ages.

Where will that cash come from? Based on its tenuous grasp of the current political atmosphere, the MPA has decided to employ an innovative funding mechanism that the group is convinced won’t annoy anyone:

A surcharge on the incomes of the rich – and also the not so rich.

People who make more than $127,200 a year would have to pay an extra 1.9 percent tax, and their employers would chip in an additional 1.9 percent, for a total of 3.8 percent. Anyone fortunate enough to have a lot of dividend income would also cough up 3.8 percent. Any pain felt by the retired or not quite wealthy from this levy would be more than offset by the palliative care that would be available to them in their homes – for free (sorta).

The MPA is not completely nuts in thinking this second attempt at surcharging its way to progressive nirvana might survive legislative and gubernatorial review. If this measure passes muster with voters, it will take effect in 2019, after a fresh batch of senators and representatives, as well as a new governor, take office. Depending on what ideologies permeate that crowd, state officials might be more accepting of this approach to funding such services.

But probably not. Which leaves some questions:

Will the MPA abandon its passion for the surcharge if it fails a second time?

Will we see additional efforts to shake down the prosperous to pay for its pricey agenda of social services?

And will the alliance prove to be even crazier than the governor it abhors?

If you have rhetorical questions of your own, email aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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