Ron Schmidt: How to respond to an immoral budget

Ron Schmidt: How to respond to an immoral budget

The novelist Thomas Mann once asked, “what good would politics be, if it didn’t give everyone the opportunity to make moral compromises?” That might read as humorous cynicism, but Mann is pointing to something important there about the nature of politics.

The compromises involved in crafting a complex budget of billions of dollars aren’t just negotiating tricks; coalition politics is more than the strategy you use to get a better deal on a car. Those who represent us in the state legislature, which entails an enormous amount of work and doesn’t exactly translate into fame and riches, are motivated by their understanding of the interests of the people of this state, and that can necessitate trading away things that they see as incredibly important.

Two examples: Democrats fought hard for the budget’s additional $80 million, overall, in public education spending because they see it as a crucial investment in the future of Maine; but they accepted new caps on TANF and food stamps, as well as a changed General Assistance reimbursement formula that underfunds the southern part of the state, in order to get that $80 million.

Republicans got some income tax reform, but nothing like the radical changes that at least some of them see as essential.

In other words, legislators from both parties made painful compromises to save at least part of what they think the state really needs. These aren’t just negotiating swaps; they are, as Mann would say, moral compromises.

Many Mainers have objections to the budget and its compromises. Most outspoken among them is Governor Paul LePage, who has chosen to express his displeasure in an incredibly childish way, with toys, nasty comments about the character of other elected officials, an open attempt to make governing the state much harder, and outright lies about some of Maine’s most vulnerable people. Some pundits have suggested that he has simply lost his mind.

But let’s try to be sympathetic: what if you were adamantly opposed to one of the “moral compromises” embedded in the budget?

I don’t have to imagine. I am opposed to one of those compromises, one that punished Portland and other Maine cities for doing their legal and moral duty by providing a small amount of assistance to refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

And that brings us back, once again, to Thomas Mann.

Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature when he was still young, and was a major influence in the cultural life of his native Germany. Originally a militaristic nationalist, he eventually became an advocate for democratic politics and fled from the Nazis with his family, first to Switzerland and then to the United States. While his books were burned in his native land, he settled in California, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany.

Or, I guess, if you’re using Governor LePage’s dictionary, an “illegal alien” from Hitler’s Germany.

LePage has been attempting for some time now to deny General Assistance funds to Maine towns and cities that provide emergency funding to people that he terms “illegal aliens.” The phrase is appalling in general — American legislatures outlaw certain kinds of behavior, after all, but not certain kinds of humans — and in the case of the governor’s budgetary politics, it’s also flatly incorrect. The people generally referred to as “illegal aliens” are people who have broken U.S. immigration law, usually by overstaying their visas, and those aren’t the people that the governor is targeting this time.

Asylum seekers, like Thomas Mann and his family 70 years ago, are, by definition, documented immigrants and are forbidden by federal law from seeking work for six months. They sometimes must wait longer than that for federal work permits. General assistance can be all that stands between these people and hunger and homelessness.

LePage’s “illegal alien” label is what professional political scientists like myself call “a lie.” The governor’s office is well aware of the fact that refugee status is granted by the federal government, and that these immigrants are abiding by federal law, and that their need is genuine and pressing. Morally, it’s hard to see how we can deny them aid, especially since our municipalities are legally required to render it.

And yet an amendment to the budget designed to protect this vulnerable Maine community was stripped from the bill by a vote in the State Senate. Many of those who want to help asylum-seekers still voted for that budget, in order to keep the government functioning.

So there we go: a moral compromise that I find unacceptable, embedded in the budget. So what am I — or you, for that matter, if you agree with me — going to do about it?

Political theater? I’m not opposed to that, though I’d like to think we could manage something better than LePage’s squeaky toy pigs. Perhaps something more like a demonstration? Members of Maine’s communities of faith have already made their feelings clear at the State House, and a variety of local communities in Portland have rallied to let their feelings be known. But we’ve got a right to freely assemble and petition government for a redress of grievances, or words to that effect; talk to your friends, talk to people you don’t know, and do it in the public square. Be visible, and be heard.

New legislation, outside of the budget process? That’s happening and has passed the Senate with a strong majority, although as of now it lacks a veto-proof majority in the House.

They need to hear from us. To find your member of the State House of Representatives, go here and go here to find your senator. Take a second to thank them for actually managing to pass a budget under these circumstances, and then tell them what you think about this particular compromise.

The Portland City Council is holding a budget meeting next Wednesday; here’s their contact information. Let them know you’ll have their back, if they do the right thing.

Forget whatever the hell the governor is doing. What are we going to do?

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.


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