Republican radio address

For the weekend of September 11-12, 2010

Greetings, this is Rich Cebra, state representative from Naples.

One of the most serious problems facing Maine is our massive welfare system. It takes up an astounding portion of state tax revenue and keeps hundreds of thousands of people trapped in poverty. Instead of encouraging hard work and self-reliance, the Maine system is designed to foster dependency and hopelessness. This is a travesty and a disgrace, and it keeps getting worse.

Between 2003 and 2010 – the tenure of Governor Baldacci – welfare enrollment exploded by 70 percent. In 2003, some 226,000 people were on Maine’s welfare rolls. The figure today is 381,000. That’s 29 percent of Maine’s total population on some form of welfare. In fact, if the current growth trend continues, by 2013 Maine will have more people on welfare than working in the private sector. That is financially unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

Maine ranks second in the nation in the percentage of its population on Food Stamps. We rank second for Medicaid and second for TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The reason is that we provide some of the most lenient standards in the country for getting into the welfare system. We even provide handouts to drug felons and non-citizens. Consider MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program. Here, a married couple with three children and earning $51,000 qualifies for Medicaid. The national qualifying income average for the same-sized family is $15,000. In other words, you can make three times more money here than in other states and still qualify for free medical and dental care. Medicaid was meant to be a program for destitute women and their young children. Maine has turned it into a middle-class entitlement costing state and federal taxpayers more than $2 billion a year.

These dramatic welfare figures are disturbing in a state that used to pride itself as a bastion of hardy and self-sufficient people. Those rugged Mainers of yesteryear have been replaced by people who have turned the safety net into a welfare hammock and a way of life.

During this time of economic stress, when the next state budget may have to be cut by $1 billion or more, we can’t afford to keep running one of the most dysfunctional welfare regimes in the nation. In the last Legislature, I introduced a commonsense, five-point welfare reform bill to rectify the worst aspects of the Maine system, especially the ones that actively encourage people to stay on welfare. That bill was killed by an 85-60 vote in the House, where Democrats lined up to defend a system they have built up over the last 30 years. For reasons that are hard to fathom, they vote as if keeping a huge chunk of our population on the public dole is a good thing. They ignore the fact that we can no longer afford these bloated programs.

I have submitted the same bill for the next Legislature, hoping for a better outcome. It starts by setting a 90-day residency requirement for all recipients of Maine’s general assistance. That’s the cash handed out by municipalities and funded by local taxes and state money. A three-month waiting period seems reasonable to discourage transients and vagrants from claiming money that rightfully should be reserved for Maine residents.

Another point would offer targeted tax credits to employers who hire welfare recipients. The employer would receive a 75 percent credit for the employee’s salary during the first year, followed by a 50 percent credit in the second year and 25 percent in the third. This credit could slightly reduce state revenues in the short term but would increase revenues over the long run while permanently lowering our welfare burden.

A third component would eliminate the 20-hour rule. Right now, welfare benefits are cut off for anyone working more than 20 hours a week. Rather than a cliff-like cutoff, my bill would provide a sliding scale where workers would still receive a portion of their welfare benefits until their income reaches a certain point. The goal is to incentivize work and move folks toward full-time employment. The bill also would establish a five-year lifetime welfare eligibility to be consistent with federal law.

The overall idea is to remove barriers to working. Holding a job will raise self-esteem and have a positive impact on their people’s lives. Many folks on welfare don’t want to be there but they can’t afford to leave it. A more intelligent system would enhance the value of taking a job.

This is Rich Cebra. Thank you for listening.