Greetings and Happy New Year! This is Kathy Chase, state representative from Wells.
This coming week marks the start of a new era for the citizens of Maine. On Wednesday, Paul LePage will be sworn in as governor at the Augusta Civic Center. The next day, the Legislature will convene at the State House to witness the swearing-in of three new constitutional officers - the Attorney General, the Treasurer and the Secretary of State. And there will be a new look to the Legislature itself. For the first time in decades, Republicans hold the majority in the House and Senate. When Mainers went to the polls on November 2nd, they voted for a clean sweep and a fresh start.
In the transition phase between then and now, the State House has been a busy place. Incoming legislators have been briefed on the basics of their new jobs. Staff members have been moving around and adjusting to new responsibilities. Representatives and senators have been assigned to one or more of the 16 policy committees that form the internal structure of the Legislature. And over everything hangs a sense of hope that new policies can point Maine in the right direction - towards a stronger economy with a better business climate and more jobs for our citizens.
If Republicans collectively could make a New Year's resolution, it would be devoting our energies to bringing about a lasting economic revival in our state. Government can't create jobs, but it can set the conditions that make life easier for entrepreneurs and other employers. That effort is already under way with action to identify regulations and enforcement tactics that needlessly punish employers and impede economic expansion. Clearly, some regulations are necessary to protect our common well-being, but enforcement too often becomes hostile and adversarial. It would be much better to work in a mutually beneficial fashion and exercise common sense.
As a new member of the Appropriations Committee, I understand that Republicans are coming to power in Maine at a time of great challenges. The question isn't whether to change direction; the question is how to change direction to bring about the best results. We don't really have a choice about taking action. With a revenue shortfall estimated at more than $1 billion, the state no longer has the money to maintain the political status quo.
The list of problems we face is a long one and solving them will take hard work and creativity. Our health care costs are among the highest in the country, making private insurance rates extraordinarily expensive. The Obamacare bill passed by the Democratic Congress is already driving costs even higher, with no relief in sight. For employers, the extreme cost of covering their workforce means slower growth and fewer employees. This fundamental problem must be addressed for Maine to move forward and generate more jobs. Changing Maine's insurance mandates to a mainstream position is one approach. That would bring more insurance companies into the state, increasing competition. Another approach is allowing individuals to buy insurance policies in other states, where rates are much lower for identical coverage. We can buy life insurance and auto insurance across state lines. Why not health insurance?
There are other issues that must be addressed, as well. We have a $4.4 billion unfunded debt to the public employees pension system and a separate unfunded debt of more than $2 billion for retiree health insurance. Other states facing similar problems are changing benefit packages for teachers and state workers, and it's time for Maine to explore systems that we can afford over the long haul. The state's overall debt, by the way, is more than $10 billion.
And then there's welfare. Over the past few decades, Maine has built one of the largest, most generous and most lenient welfare systems in the country. Enrollment has grown by 70 percent since 2003, now embracing 29 percent of our population. We have 300,000 residents on MaineCare - our version of Medicaid - receiving free medical and dental care. That's one quarter of the state. One recent study concluded that Maine is the now the most welfare-dependent state in the entire nation. Considering our budget shortfall, we need to reform these programs to reduce enrollment and encourage independence and personal responsibility. We can't afford to sink into a permanent welfare culture.
The new Legislature has plenty of work to do. Republicans are committed to positive change, and we welcome Democrats to join us. We're all in this together. This is Kathy Chase, wishing you a great new year. ###