Op-Ed: Moral Budget?


by Jason Savage

Budgets are moral documents. By now, if you have followed the debate about Maine’s DHHS budget and welfare spending you have heard this statement from those who oppose reform.  The argument has made its way onto stick signs at various protests designed for media attention. A full exploration of this statement is a fitting place to begin the conversation.

The Maine state government budget is the document that affects every Maine resident, business or property owner. Those who make the “budgets are moral documents” argument in favor of the unbridled expansion of the welfare state ignore the impact of its cost to Maine’s other moral obligations.

As a society we are morally obligated to educate our children, provide for public safety, promote the general welfare, protect the liberty of our citizens and support their right to pursue happiness.

Maine state government is required by law to fund local school districts at 55% of cost. We currently fund local schools at only about 45%. If budgets are moral documents, are we fulfilling our moral obligation to our children?

Maine people earn 82% of the national average in income, but their tax dollars pay for some of the most generous welfare benefits in the nation. Is it a moral practice of our state to demand more of hard-working Maine people through higher taxes in order to fund benefits above the national average? Are the household budgets of hard-working Mainers not moral documents?

Small business owners know something about budgets. Through good economic times and bad, they are the engine of Maine’s economy – the same economy upon which all state budgets depend for revenue.

Small business owners who sign the front side of tens of thousands of paychecks each week know something about morality. It is their creative energy, risk and hard work that keep hundreds of thousands of Maine people working and able to care for themselves and their families. Are the budgets of these small businesses, which support hundreds of thousands of Mainers, not also moral documents?

MSHA director Dale McCormick recently appeared in a public service video declaring that “people will die” if more tax dollars were not provided to MSHA to help needy residents heat their homes. Yet McCormick gave out $144k in $1,000 “bonuses” to MaineHousing staff last year and MSHA has reportedly spent hundreds of thousands dollars in dubious expenses, yet 6,500 Maine families are on MSHA waiting lists for a warm, safe place to live. Is the MaineHousing budget not also a moral document?

To appease those in favor of the unbridled expansion of the welfare state, lawmakers would need to reach out into many areas of the state budget to feed our welfare programs. Cuts in education funding would force districts to raise property taxes on low and fixed income residents, lay off teachers or both.

Are strained school budgets, and the budgets of low and fixed income Maine residents not moral documents?  Before alarmists claim this is a false choice, consider that welfare and education make up almost 80% of the state budget. There is a mathematical certainty of impact.

Recently we have seen outpourings of support, millions donated by Maine people to help those in need feed their families and heat their homes. These contributions often find their way to recipients with no administrative costs. When state government provides the same services, it often takes as much as 25 cents on the dollar for overhead – which then cannot go directly to those in need. Are the budgets of those private citizens that help Mainers without costly overhead not moral documents? Should lawmakers demand more of those funds be filtered through a costly bureaucracy? How is state spending more moral because of this?

We likely all agree that budgets of many kinds are moral documents. Where many disagree with the protesters in Augusta is in our refusal to accept that their morality – based upon taking more from all others to increase their own spending – is superior to the morality of those who manage the many budgets which serve as the foundation of  Maine’s economy.

For Maine to prosper, we, as individuals and communities, must be allowed to define for ourselves the morality of our budgets. Those who advocate for the unbridled expansion of the welfare state are not wrong in their statement that budgets are moral documents, but they fail to acknowledge that there is a lot more to morality than just to demand a greater role of the state in how we define it.

Jason Savage is the Executive Director of Maine People Before Politics