April 02, 2020

A challenge to Maine’s motto

A Yarmouth group called GrowSmart Maine paid $500,000 to the Brookings Institution to produce the following line about the state’s uneven economic results:

“Maine has frequently failed to stick to and sustain its innovation, with the predictable result that it has undercut the effectiveness of numerous intelligent but under- or unfunded initiatives that might have otherwise made a larger difference.”

Worth every penny.

GrowSmart got much more for its money – an outstanding report on the economic health of the state, extensive accounts of where Maine could improve its performance and a well-reasoned plan for investment. But everything turns on that line.

Throughout the report, called “Charting Maine’s Future,” you will find examples of good ideas that were never fully developed, such as Maine & Co., which is supposed to attract new business here but hasn’t been state-funded since 2003. And you will see examples of trouble, such as how Maine threatens its image and adds to its costs by not getting control of helter-skelter development, or how it has been unable to lower its tax burden.

It is too simple to say if only the state that proclaims “Dirigo” had better leadership, its problems would be solved. But the report shows how the absence of state leaders persuasively making the case to sacrifice services or tax dollars, to stick with ideas that work even at the expense of other good ideas, to create a healthier economy and sustainable development, has resulted in a kind of low-grade economic entropy.

Laurie Lachance, president of the Maine Development Foundation and a former state economist, wrote the line above as well as a chapter in “Charting Maine’s Future” on the state’s inconsistent investments. She traced activity over the last six administrations, from 1967 and Gov. Ken Curtis through to the present under Gov. John Baldacci, and found many successes but too many failures. Mostly, her report identifies a lack of belief in what have been some very good proposals.

A recent example, for instance, is the Maine Technology Institute, established seven years ago to encourage private-sector research and development. Maine started it with good intentions, asking the American Association for the Advancement of Science how much funding MTI would need to be effective. The answer was $10 million, so Maine gave it about half that amount, thereby ensuring that it had both substantial cost and lowered effectiveness.

Similarly, in 2003 the state devised incentives for municipalities and schools to cooperate, creating a painless way to increase efficiency. Instead of sending this fund the $22 million agreed upon, however, lawmakers used much of the money to purchase local agreement on its K-12 school-funding plan, thereby unintentionally creating the Maine Inefficiency Fund.

Two other examples Lachance points out tirelessly are the funding of higher education and public R&D, both of which have proven, swift and enormous payback. Yet the state has barely funded R&D or funded it unevenly so it’s never clear whether money will be available in the future. Forty years ago, higher education accounted for 18 percent of Maine’s budget; it now accounts for 8 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the state’s contribution per student has dropped 37 percent since 1989, even as the importance of a college education has grown.

Alan Caron, the president of GrowSmart, says his group will find a lawmaker to sponsor a bill this winter that includes the Brookings’ proposals – major bonds for improving Maine communities and investing in research and development, cost-cutting in government, a cut to the income tax and an increase in the lodging tax. And if Maine continues its 40-year history, its politicians will maul the difficult parts of this proposal – a tax increase! program cuts! – and merely starve the easy parts.

They will do this because they believe, correctly, that it is politically safer to maintain the status quo of a heavy tax on everyone and a lack of investment rather than risk proposing something unpopular. Better to wallow in Maine’s mediocre performance, the unstated thinking goes, than admit that changing outcomes here requires changing the things that brought about these conditions.

GrowSmart has anticipated this, and set aside another $500,000 to build a bipartisan campaign around its ideas. It will still need, however, a political leader to explain why Maine should hitch its future to this plan. The governor is the natural choice for that role, but not just the current governor or the next governor. “Charting Maine’s Future” works only if it becomes the kind of program to which governors are routinely expected to pledge allegiance and full funding.

Maine has had at least 40 years of the alternative, and while many of the ideas and innovations of the last six governors have been helpful, they haven’t been good enough because they have often lacked either an argument for their existence or a commitment to keep them effective or both.

The importance of the Brookings report is that it assembles many of those good ideas into a coherent package and says, Here is your home-grown chance at prosperity. Who can take it and lead?

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.

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