2017-01-13 / Opinion

What would MLK Jr. do?

On Jan. 16, we celebrate the the life of Martin Luther King Jr., an American who exemplified and fought for the values we hold dear in our country — freedom for all people and fair treatment under the law. We remember the tragedy, too, that Dr. King paid the ultimate price in the fight for equality.

Every year, we remember Dr. King’s life and honor his legacy. But it’s not enough to remember. We must honor his vision for a just world. Those of us in elected office would do well to measure our work in the public sector against the yardstick set by Dr. King. Are we living up to his high standard for a moral society?

In the Legislature, the single most consequential piece of policy we consider and pass is the biennial budget. The budget is much more than a list of revenues and appropriations. The budget has real-world effects on Maine families, our communities and on individual lives. Ethical questions about the budget abound. Does it make Mainers’ lives better, or worse? Does it do as much good as possible for the greatest number of people? Does it protect the most vulnerable people in our state — children, the poor, the sick, the disabled and the elderly?

Gov. Paul LePage kick-started the budget process last week when he delivered his proposed budget package. At more than 1,000 pages, there’s a lot to absorb. But I’ve been looking at some of Gov. LePage’s proposals with Dr. King’s vision in mind.

In 1967, in the last book Dr. King published before he was killed, he wrote that “the curse of poverty has no justification in our age. … The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

Dr. King knew, as we do, that a society is judged by the way it treats “the least of these.” But rather than doing more to lift Mainers — including a growing number of children — who are suffering in poverty, the governor’s budget slashes programs that help these families get back on their feet. It imposes arbitrary limits on parents’ benefits that will make it harder and harder for these moms and dads to provide the basic necessities of food and safe shelter for their families.

On the question of health care, Dr. King said in 1966 that “Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman because it often results in physical death.”

In Washington, politicians are debating whether to take health insurance away from more than 20 million Americans by repealing the Affordable Care Act with no plan to replace it with something better. Here in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has proposed taking health care coverage away from tens of thousands of low-income parents.

All Mainers deserve the security of knowing they won’t face financial ruin if they fall ill or a family member suffers a serious injury. We may not be able to control what kind of shenanigans they get up to in Washington, but we don't need to make matters worse in Augusta.

During my career as a social worker, I met a lot of Mainers struggling through poverty and adversity. Some of those people made the wrong decisions, fell into addiction and committed crimes. But many more tried every day to do the right thing but faced huge odds. Unexpected health care expenses or bills could be make the difference between getting ahead and falling further behind.

As a Legislature, we should be focused on expanding access to health coverage and making medical care more affordable, not taking people’s insurance away and pushing them closer toward poverty.

There are things I like in the governor’s budget. I share his interest in extending zero-interest student loans to Mainers, and in making new investments in our infrastructure. But I cannot support senseless cuts that make it harder for struggling parents to climb the ladder to economic stability.

I’ll be celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. day with constituents and friends at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Kennebunk. And I’ll be considering the question, “What would MLK Jr. do?” as I consider the state’s budget in the following months. It’s a high standard to uphold, but I know that in striving to meet it, we will do the right thing for Mainers.

— State Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, represents Senate District 32, which includes Alfred, Arundel, Biddeford, Dayton, Kennebunkport and Lyman.

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