April 01, 2020

Other Maine’s turn

In his State of the State speech last year, Gov. Angus King declared war on tobacco, got a standing ovation from the Legislature, accolades from the public and, a few months later, the doubled cigarette tax he asked for.

This year, much of the annual address will be devoted to proclaiming 1998 The Year of the Other Maine. Since lumbering, dim-witted Joe Camel certainly will prove to be easier quarry than the elusive poverty and despair that stalk the state’s northern tier, we wish the governor happy hunting.

The problem is longstanding and well documented, and, as the economy improves, the chasm between the Two Maines only deepens. While Southern Maine’s jobless rate virtually disappears, the north’s seems perpetually stuck in the high single or double digits. By any measure — household income, reliance on public assistance, educational attainment, the Saab-to-rusty heap ratio — this isn’t just two different states. It’s two different planets.

The specifics of the governor’s agenda are still being developed, but if the end-of-the-month speech is to anything more than a pep talk, certain components must be included — transportation, telecommunications and business capital. And the word “spend” must be in the vocabulary.

Transportation is the biggie, in terms of both need and cost. The governor himself has often noted that 85 percent of the job creation in Maine occurs within 15 miles of the I-95/Turnpike corridor. As the commerce of Southern Maine zips to market on four lanes or more, that of the Other Maine bumps along on frost heaves. A highway system that focuses exclusively on connecting with Southern New England and beyond has been a great boon for Portland, but it has done little for Calais, Rumford or Caribou. I-95 must be extended to Quebec, an East-West highway must be built to tie Northern Maine, the Maritimes and the rest of the North American continent together.

And lest anyone, such as Southern Maine legislators, forget, the support of Northern Maine for widening the turnpike was enlisted with the assertion that this is Maine’s highway and the promise that this massive project is just the first step toward better transportation for all.

Likewise, job growth can be traced along fiber-optics communications lines and access to business capital — those regions that have it grow, those that don’t, don’t.

The last time Maine tried to boost its northern half, the best it could come up with was the Job Opportunity Zone, an initiative that produced little more than press releases, meetings and paperwork. This time, the goal must be specific: Create an infrastructure that will let thousands of underemployed and unemployed residents turn themselves into full-fledged taxpayers.

Gov. King has been, to the extent the state’s recently dreadful financial situation allowed, a reasonably strong advocate for the Other Maine. Example: he stuck his neck out to a considerable length in opposing endangered species listing for Atlantic salmon, a designation that would devastated what little economy the Down East region has.

But there also have been missteps, signs that the chronic attitude of neglect toward the Other Maine pervades, perhaps inadvertently, even the governor’s office. Example: the appointment of a committee last spring to redesign the state prison system that started out with no members from north of Augusta; a committee that all-too-predictably now recommends more than $100 million in construction and hundreds of new jobs, all for Southern Maine.

Governors and legislatures of the recent past could do little else than fret about Northern and Eastern Maine — the state simply did not have the money to fix anything. Now it has the money and a reasonable expectation that the economy will continue to hum. Stirring words from the governor’s bully pulpit and ringing applause by lawmakers will be only a start. The folks of the Other Maine have watched the rest of the state thrive, they’ve even pitched in to help. Now, it’s their turn.

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