April 08, 2020


In what is the most perceptive and ambitious review of Maine in years, the Brookings Institution has drawn on previous work, done an impressive amount of new research and added substantial analysis to create a Maine action plan based on what this state has known but has not known how to use.

The virtue of this work is that it presents previous ideas as a sensible whole, so the connections between state and local government, between policy and outcomes, between elected officials and the public are apparent, and they point Maine in a clear direction.

GrowSmart Maine of Yarmouth, which will use the next four years to build support for the report’s conclusions, hired Brookings more than a year ago to begin this project. GrowSmart now has plenty of evidence for advancing a policy that increases government efficiency, lowers taxes and invests in both the state’s future and its “brand,” the things that make Maine immediately identifiable to the world.

Throughout the report, called “Charting Maine’s Future” and being released today, is a particularly welcome piece of advice: Cheer up, things aren’t as bad as you think. Yes, taxes are too high and have to come down, and, yes, Maine faces some unusually high government expenses while it underfunds promising areas of economic development, and, yes, there really are two Maines.

But Maine is among the fastest growing states in the country because people want to live here; its quality of life and its success in raising its college-going rate, for instance, are worth celebrating; where it has invested in areas of research such as biotechnology, it has found real progress. Maine’s challenge is that it has hit a dead end: an overtaxed tax base and a demand for investment in the presence of further possible restrictions such as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Brookings supplies a way out of this problem.

It points out, for instance, that not only are administration costs high in K-12, as is well known, but that they are high in state government too and high within the university system, with $2.13 going to noninstructional payroll for every $1 going to instructional payroll, the highest ratio in the country. Local government, absent schools, is fairly frugal by comparison, but even there, because of the amount spent on K-12 education “little room appears left to support local parks and recreation programs, libraries, or even local road building.”

“Charting Maine’s Future” offers insightful explanations for how Maine has ended up with high taxes, stretched too thin where it should be spending and growing in ways that defeat one of its strongest assets – its natural beauty. But the pages of the report that will be talked about most are its recommendations for action.

They include the following: a 10-year, $190 million bond called the Maine Quality Places Fund, a means to revitalize Maine towns, provide access to its natural areas and promote tourism; a $200 million Maine Innovation Jobs Fund to establish R&D at its proper level for promising industries and support industry partnerships that will lead to networks and work force development; and tax reductions, that will lower the top income-tax rate and increase the tax exemption at the bottom.

To pay for this and more, the report wants to export taxes onto tourists by raising the lodging tax, and then cut government by $60 million to $100 million through efficiencies, reduced administration and slicing away ineffective, unaffordable programs. The idea is to cut to invest.

This is welcome. After decades of trying one program and then another, starting projects only to give them too little funding to succeed, demanding lower taxes without a vision of what that would mean, “Charting Maine’s Future” has shown the state a better way. It should become the state’s handbook for reforming the way Maine does business.

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