July 09, 2020
Column

Confront change in government

Maine is in fiscal crisis. We are confronting structural deficits of monumental proportions. Consider the following comments: “The announcement that the state budget could be $1 billion in the hole is an indictment of the Democrat and Republican Parties of Maine, the Legislature and the administration. They have failed the people of this state. Two years ago, the state had a nearly identical bottom line. Tax revenues were sliding down with the economy. Augusta was $1 billion in the red. The Democratic Legislature and … the governor spent two sessions blaming each other for the state’s misery period.”

The governor wrote, “We confront a one billion or more shortfall, a failing health care network, a dated tax system, a federal government that can’t reduce their taxes at all levels of government, while municipalities have been demanding more support. Maine’s transportation network is inadequate, its public universities are underfunded, the local property taxes are too high.”

The first quoted statement is reprinted from the Bangor Daily News in an editorial on Sept. 1, 1992; the second is from Nov. 9-10, 2002. What has really changed over the last decade? Is it truly time for a change in government? Where should we begin in the process of restructuring government so that it functions with an adequate delivery of services at a reasonable cost? These and many similar questions are facing all of us today in this state. The governor, Legislature and interested citizens all continue to debate how best to proceed with finally getting our state back on track.

I believe it is now time for the governor and Legislature to seriously consider the proposals of “The Special Commission on Governmental Restructuring” issued Dec. 15, 1991. As a member of the State Restructuring Commission, I can report that the bipartisan proposals submitted were made with a view toward bringing government in line with a more businesslike approach, which, if enacted, will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings in each biennium budget.

While the proposals to combine the Departments of Finance and Administration and initiate total quality management at the executive level were enacted, nearly all of the other proposals were not. Because we have wasted 10 years since the Restructuring Commission’s report, it is now high time to reconsider those proposals and do the right thing for the people of Maine through enactment.

Citizens and study groups have made a number of solutions, as follows: Consider possible privatization of government services by contracting out, service shedding and related forms of competition. To the extent that public employees are displaced, unions should be encouraged to form their own for-profit corporations to bid for the services, so that their employees remain working. The key to any privatization plan is not necessarily to rid the state of the function, but rather to maintain and provide an equal or better level of service at a lesser cost.

Reduce the size of the Legislature. In addition, the Legislature should restructure to make it a true citizen legislature by meeting on Fridays year-round. Any carryover days should go into Saturdays. In this way, more Maine citizens can serve in the Legislature without having to disrupt their businesses and jobs. The cost of the Legislature will be reduced. While there may be a need for more “management type” support in the Legislature, similar to what many local governments utilize with a city manager-type approach, the savings will be dramatic and the input significant.

The State Restructuring Commission made several of the following proposals: Creation of a new Department of Children and Family and Health and Developmental Services. This would result in the abolition of the Department of Human Services and Mental Health and Mental Retardation Departments; consolidation of these two agencies would result in a more efficient and service-specific managed product.

Reorganization of the Department of Environmental Protection, according to its functions rather than bureaucrats.

Combine the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Creation of the Department of Justice, combining the Department of Public Safety with the Department of Corrections and related departments under an attorney general appointed by the governor, who would also be a member of the Cabinet. This system would unify all justice functions under one administrative control for management coordination and efficiency.

Make all capital investments under a plan based on long-term cost-benefit analysis. The state budget should be divided into an operating budget and a capital budget.

Divestiture of state liquor sales to the private sector as is being accomplished in some form at the present time.

Several areas that can be considered for privatization or private contracts include lottery applications, certain correctional and mental health facilities and services, laboratory facilities, buildings and grounds services, bill processing, printing and publishing, and risk management operations.

The combination of all advocacy services to a state Office of Advocacy, a separate agency under the executive department. An 11-member board would govern the Office.

The abolition of the Division of Community Services and redistribution of its functions to other agencies.

A consolidation of services for people who are homeless to the Maine State Housing Authority. Replacement of rehabilitation services to that agency, including all workers’ compensation rehabilitation, so that one facility controls all functions in the state of Maine, for that service.

The creation of a public education strategic planning council, with membership from all educational delivery systems in the state at all levels, for coordination of educational policy.

The Board of Environmental Protection could be abolished and the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection assume all of the board’s responsibilities, with the exception of appeals, which would be handled by a three-member appellate board. The abolishment of the existing DEP structure and reorganization along the functional lines of licensing, Technical Services and Enforcement.

Use of interactive television and other related resources to bring all regions of the state together for central hearings and seminars. These centers could be established at the various University of Maine System locations for reasonable accessibility. The technological opportunities should be integrated with all educational functions so that they have multiple uses.

While these suggestions from citizens, the Restructuring Commission and even candidates in the last election all provide an impetus for real structural change, the point remains that the Legislature and administration must stop talking about change and actually enact it. Whether the Legislature picks up the mantle from the Restructuring Commission and its proposals of 10 years ago, or updates the reports with the addition of new proposals, it needs to be done expeditiously with a uniform sense of urgency.

N. Laurence Willey Jr., of Bangor, is a former member of the State Restructuring Commission.


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