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Elderly Maine considers tax hike to fund universal home care

On November 6, Maine voters will consider a proposal to provide free home care to people 65 and older and those with disabilities. The plan, “Question 1” on the ballot, would be funded by an additional 3.8 percent tax on income over $128,400. While the program would serve populations in need, critics fear the tax increase would stall the state economy. Paul Solman talks to Mainers for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, a different midterm election story.

    As 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every day, voters in the state of Maine will soon consider the country's first universal home care program. But the proposal, and how it would be funded, are proving controversial.

    Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has the story. It's part of our series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday.

  • Paul Solman:

    Ninety-five-year-old Hazel Cross has been living on her family's farm in rural Freedom, Maine, for 75 years.

    If she had to move to a nursing home?

  • Hazel Cross:

    Oh, it would be the end.

  • Paul Solman:

    The end?

  • Hazel Cross:

    Of my life.

  • Paul Solman:

    Good thing her son Myrick moved back to the farm seven years ago, so Hazel Cross could stay put.

  • Myrick Cross:

    I will do whatever I can for her to stay here, because we can provide the care for her that improves the quality of her life. She has a purpose, and she feels it. I can see, she feels value.

  • Paul Solman:

    Because of her son, who helps his mother cope with dementia and other age-related ailments. He also cares for his 38-year-old daughter, Katherine, who has Down syndrome. It's more than he can handle by himself.

  • Myrick Cross:

    I interviewed some agencies, but I couldn't afford them. Some of them were $25 an hour for their staff. They have to have overhead and that. And so I found local people who were willing to work part-time. And that's what we have piecemealed together.

  • Paul Solman:

    Cross pays a patchwork of providers $10 to $15 an hour.

  • Myrick Cross:

    Kate is on Tuesday and Thursday. Tyson is on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And Paula comes on Saturday and part of Sunday. So, the checks that people get paid…

  • Paul Solman:

    In order to pay the checks, the 75-year old Episcopal priest, who thought he'd retired, has returned to work.

  • Myrick Cross:

    I'm working half-time in Brewer, at St. Patrick's Church. That's where I get the salary to pay the caregivers that make it possible for mom and Katherine and I to stay here. If I weren't able to work to pay them, I don't know what we would do.

  • Paul Solman:

    Father Cross typifies how most home care has been provided in America: by family and friends. But families are shrinking, dispersing. And so there are fewer to take care of more.

  • Myrick Cross:

    Their families are so spread out. They're all over the place. Some of them can't take in an elderly person, or they can't just move here and do what I have done.

  • Paul Solman:

    But in Maine, he sees some hope. Next week, voters will consider Question 1, which would provide free home care for people 65 and older and the disabled, to be funded by a 3.8 percent tax on income above $128,400.

    Many in Father Cross' community would benefit. Just look at his prayer group. With 20 percent of Mainers 65 or older, this is the oldest state in the country. And, as elsewhere, there aren't enough home care workers already.

    Ben Chin, lobbying for the proposal, blames low pay.

  • Ben Chin:

    Right now, there's about 6,000 hours a week of seniors who aren't getting care, and it's just because agencies can't hire workers because they can't pay workers enough to come do this job.

  • Paul Solman:

    Maine home care workers average just $11 an hour. Question 1's tax hike would go to providing care and raises and training to attract more workers.

    And family caregivers would also get a stipend. In Lisbon, Maine 79-year-old Ed Fallon is cared for by his, 21-year-old granddaughter, Nina Dennehy. Fallon moved in with Dennehy, a waitress, and her fiance two years ago.

  • Nina Dennehy:

    His caretaker moved away, so I stepped up to the line and became his caretaker.

  • Paul Solman:

    Without you guys, he'd be?

  • Nina Dennehy:

    He has no one else. If he were to become more ill than what he is right now, I probably wouldn't be able to take care of him. I wouldn't have the time. I still have to work. I still have to like pay rent, pay electricity, pay the oil, groceries, take care of everything else.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, what would happen? What would happen to you?

  • Ed Fallon:

    I don't know. I could end up in a nursing home, or in a shelter even.

  • Paul Solman:

    Fallon's situation is hardly unique.

  • Ben Chin:

    Six in 10 people in Maine right now are or have been family caregivers. They are people who every day face this responsibility of, how do I pay my bills, how do I go to work, and how do I care for an aging loved one, or a child with disability.

  • Paul Solman:

    So canvassers are trying to reach them.

  • Woman:

    We're just talking to people about Question 1 for universal in-home care.

  • Paul Solman:

    So that's one side of the story. The other? State economist Amanda Rector warns, Question 1 could stop Maine's economic expansion dead in its tracks.

  • Amanda Rector:

    We found that the proposal had negative effects on Maine's economy across population, labor force, employment, personal income, GDP.

  • Paul Solman:

    Rector's take? The new tax will drive Mainers away.

  • Amanda Rector:

    We have essentially raised the cost of doing business and living in Maine through this tax increase. And so the resulting effect is people and businesses are going to either move out or not move in.

  • Paul Solman:

    Alec Porteous is Maine's finance commissioner.

  • Alec Porteous:

    You're also going to see increased business production costs, so less job creation, fewer wage increases, less capital investment. Really, all the bread and butter of economic growth is going to be negatively affected.

  • Paul Solman:

    Small wonder most business and health care groups fiercely oppose the measure.

  • Newell Augur:

    This tax is a hit on nearly every small business in this state.

  • Paul Solman:

    Newell Augur is chair of the No On Question 1/Stop the Scam campaign.

  • Newell Augur:

    We know of specific examples of a similar tax fight that we had two years ago, where hospitals lost the ability to bring a resident because of the specter of a 3 percent tax that was on the ballot and was passed two years ago.

  • Donna DeBlois:

    We are vehemently opposed to this.

  • Paul Solman:

    Donna DeBlois, who runs MaineHealth Care at Home, is opposed because, she says, patient information would be shared with third-party groups.

  • Donna DeBlois:

    That information would be given to a group of individuals that they don't know and they don't understand why.

  • Paul Solman:

    Supporters insist people's privacy will be protected. But what about that supposed population exodus I asked opponent DeBlois?

    Would you move out of Maine?

  • Donna DeBlois:

    No, I wouldn't. No one's going to leave the state of Maine. It's a bad deal for the state of Maine, but I don't think they're going to leave because of it.

  • Paul Solman:

    But Shipyard Brewing Company president Bruce Forsley does. He says he would consider leaving and that other businesses would too.

  • Bruce Forsley:

    We're surrounded by luxury hotels and a couple of significant office complexes. And these complexes are going to be staffed with a lot of high-earning executives that, if they cannot fill, it may require a lot of these companies to have their administrative offices off-site in other states. And all this would affect our core market.

  • Paul Solman:

    But Ben Chin of the Maine People's Alliance doesn't buy it.

  • Ben Chin:

    There's zero evidence that anybody is going to leave the state as a result of this policy passing, but what there is evidence every day is that the system right now isn't working for families.

  • Paul Solman:

    And Father Cross reminds us that Maine has other attractions as well.

  • Myrick Cross:

    People come to Maine because of the quality of life that's here, because of the connection to the environment, because of the low traffic. My mom always says, when I go to Brewer, how was the traffic today? And I said, mother, there isn't any traffic in Maine.

    And you can't put a dollar figure on those things.

  • Paul Solman:

    But you can put a dollar figure on an income tax hike.

    So, people here disagree about Question 1. There is consensus about one thing, though: Most of us want to find some way to age in place.

  • Myrick Cross:

    Everyone wants to stay in their home, if they can do that. Who wants to go to a nursing home? One of my mentors, who died in a nursing home himself, said they're wall-to-wall carpeted vegetable bins.

  • Paul Solman:

    How important is it to Hazel Cross to be at home with her family?

  • Hazel Cross:

    Oh, how important? It's my life.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman reporting from Maine.

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