Maine Librarian's Pointed Budget Message Hits the Mark

Some might have looked at the long lines of people waiting to testify on Gov. Paul LePage's proposed budget and decided it wasn't worth it.

After all, you can wait hours for your turn to speak.

And when they finally do invite you up to the microphone, you get only three minutes.

And while there may be strength in numbers, it's easy to wonder after a while whether those weary legislators on the Appropriations Committee -- or any of us, for that matter -- are truly capable of absorbing all that testimony over one full day, then another, then another ...

I got that feeling Wednesday afternoon as I sat at my desk with headphones on, listening online as a seemingly endless procession of Maine citizens decried all that's wrong with the governor's $6.1 billion spending package for the next two years.

Some, understandably, sounded nervous.

Others apologized in advance because they had colds.

Still others, bless them, tried to cram too many words into too little time and had to be gently coaxed into conclusion by Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the committee's co-chair.

Then along came Kelley McDaniel of Portland -- No. 48 on the day's speaker list.

She's a part-time librarian at King Middle School -- and a very good one at that.

She drove to Augusta with her 11-year-old daughter, Aedin, in tow because Aedin is on King Middle School's debate team, loves politics and dutifully met her mother's condition that she write a letter to each of her teachers explaining why listening to her mom testify at a state budget hearing was at least as important as a day in school.

Talk about a teachable moment.

If politics these days is all about what the experts call "driving the message," McDaniel spent all of her precious three minutes in the fast lane.

She told the committee that she recently won a national "I Love My Librarian" Award from the Carnegie Corp. and The New York Times -- an honor that included a check, made out to McDaniel, for $5,000.

"I plan to report that money on my income tax and I expect to pay taxes on it," she told the lawmakers. "Even though I donated the money in its entirety to the public middle school where I work."

You heard that right.

She gave the whole five grand, after taxes, to her school. If you live in Portland, that's your school, too.

It was only the beginning.

McDaniel said she's "happy to pay those taxes" because the way she sees it, taxes are "like membership dues" for being a citizen of this great state.

She said that while she gets lots of things (education, health and safety, arts and recreation) in exchange for those "dues," she realizes "I may not personally benefit from everything that tax money is used for."

She has no problem with that. As McDaniel put it, "I try to trust that elected officials will spend money to the best benefit of society and not just to a handful of individuals."

Then, without missing a beat, she turned her attention to the budget.

She talked about how, over there, the budget contains $200 million in tax cuts -- including an expansion of the estate-tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million -- that largely would benefit Mainers who aren't exactly scraping to get by.

And how, over here, that loss of state revenue is more than offset by $413 million in various curtailments on benefits earned by retired state workers -- many of whom, like McDaniel has at King Middle for the past 11 years, served long and nobly in Maine's public schools.

Observed McDaniel, "I don't understand the rationale for this proposal."

She said she doesn't buy the idea that the tax cuts, putting significantly more money back into the pockets (or portfolios) of Maine's wealthy, will stimulate the economy.

Citing reports from the Congressional Budget Office, McDaniel said "the best way to stimulate the economy is to give modest increases to the poor. Wealthy people tend to hold on to their money, while poor people tend to spend it as they get it."

Then McDaniel, as those experts might say, "re-framed the issue."

"I don't think it's a moral decision, because taking money from people who don't have much money and giving it to people who have more money than the people you took it from seems, well, greedy," she said. "Greed is frowned upon in every major world religion -- and I don't think agnostics and atheists look too kindly upon it, either."

She wondered aloud, "Is this about a quid pro quo? A gift from elected officials to wealthy people who have donated, or will donate, to election and re-election campaigns?"

Finally, as the clock wound down, McDaniel dropped the hammer.

"It's not economically sound. It's not morally sound. And I think you know that," she said. "I would be embarrassed to support something so ludicrous -- taking from the poor to give to the rich.

"Maybe you're testing us, checking to see if we, your constituents, are really paying attention, really listening," she continued. "I hope that's what's going on, because the alternative involves me losing faith in representative government, in democracy and in you, the elected officials."

Not once did her voice waver.

Not once did she cross the line between on-point and off-the-wall.

And not once did she sound like she was feeling sorry for herself.

Truth be told, McDaniel decided to testify in honor of her stepfather, a retired high school social studies teacher who, like so many in this state, struggles to fit rising health care costs into a painfully fixed income.

After McDaniel finished, the packed hearing room erupted into applause. Rules being rules, Chairman Rosen reminded them that cheering is not allowed.

But as McDaniel gathered her daughter for the ride home to Portland, a proud young Aedin said she noticed something about her mother's testimony that she hadn't seen with the other speakers.

"All of the people on the committee -- they weren't on their computers or looking at their papers while you were talking," Aiden told her mother. "That's because you were using your teacher voice."

A teacher voice.

Now more than ever, it's worth a few minutes of Maine's time.

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