On Monday night, Augusta Democrats — desperate to kill off as many good ideas to save taxpayers money as they could before session ended — held a series of debates and votes on welfare reform initiatives. Last year, welfare reform proved to be a crucial issue for Republicans across the state. GOP candidates, from Gov. Paul LePage to local House candidates, championed a wide variety of common-sense welfare reforms.
One might think that, after 2014, Democrats would have learned. Instead, they’ve turned a blind eye to the will of the people, taking the extraordinary step of killing or amending to death almost every welfare reform bill in a single day. They put this off to the last possible moment and did it under darkness because, deep down, they realized what they were doing was wrong. Or, at least, they should have, if they had any common sense at all.
They should have realized that not only is welfare reform sound policy, it’s sound politics that would win them more votes among moderates than it would cost them votes among their base. They would have realized it if they had better leaders who weren’t more committed to their ideology than to listening to the voters. They should have been willing to get bipartisan work done on this issue.
Unfortunately, that was not to be — at least not this session. Democrats have held fast to their opposition to any kind of limitation on benefits, or even to changing how benefits are calculated. In one extraordinary vote, the Maine Senate passed a measure sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to move the state toward barring those receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, from spending the money on junk food. The bill passed the Senate 30-4, with only Justin Alfond, Anne Haskell, Stan Gerzofsky, and Chris Johnson voting against it, cementing their status as the most left-wing members of the Maine Senate. Yet, after being amended by the House, it is likely to die in nonconcurrence between the two chambers.
And, sadly, so it was with nearly all the welfare reform bills this session. Rather than truly work with their Republican colleagues to find some kind of mutually agreeable reform — as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich did at a federal level in the 1990s — Maine Democrats simply dug in, opposing anything Republicans offered. This is disappointing, but it’s not surprising: Indeed, it’s indicative of their mindset. Maine Democrats, as they are with so many other policy areas in this state, are champions of the status quo when it comes to welfare.
To their credit, Republicans were largely united on these reforms, unlike other issues this session. The welfare reform bills (many sponsored by first-term Republican Sen. Eric Brakey) largely followed a similar path: They were passed in their original form, or close to it, by the Senate, then either died in the Maine House or were amended beyond recognition.
This kind of gamesmanship is sad, and the people of Maine should be disgusted by such blatant partisanship. Rather than coming together on reasonable reforms supported by most Mainers, all Republicans and Democrats were able to do this session on welfare was bicker, endlessly. Voters spoke overwhelmingly last November, saying they wanted at least some measure of welfare reform this session, yet Democrats chose to ignore that message. The taxpayers of Maine deserve better from their legislators, but if they want real results on this issue, they’ll have to vote for people who actually want to get things done. Fortunately, next November we’ll all have the opportunity to elect legislators who actually want to work.