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Mainers have cooperated for the public good, and can do so again

We should revive the spirit of 40 years ago, as time is running short to meet today's needs.

 

Lately I have been reading "Changing Maine 1960-2010," a collection of essays on all aspects of Maine life over the past 40 years edited by Richard Barringer and published in 2004. As someone who grew up in Maine in the '50s and '60s, it reminded me of how much has changed about our state over this period.

State Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, long-time legislator and unofficial historian of those chambers, has a brilliant chapter on Maine tax policy titled "Lessons from the Doomsday Book" (a reference to the thousand-year-old tax-collecting prowess of William the Conqueror).

Mills recounts the State of the State address by Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis in 1969. The governor referred to Maine as a "sleeping giant" just awakening. In 1968 Maine had set a record for industrial expansion. New businesses were being created, new paper mills were going up and tourism had expanded by 15 percent.

Gov. Curtis laid out a menu of new and increased taxes, including, for the first time, a state income tax. The Republican Legislature passed the income tax by one vote, after much wrangling and behind-the-scenes deal-making.

Maine's government was transformed. Whereas in the '50s, state government's budget was largely devoted to highway construction paid for by user fees, the income tax and the state sales tax provided new revenues for a vast expansion of services in K-12 education and health care.

The change was quite extraordinary. From 1963-2002, the highway budget grew by $53.4 million to $424 million but dropped from 32 percent of the state budget to 8 percent.

Meanwhile, K-12 education spending went from $31.6 million to $1.25 billion, growing six times faster than inflation. Health and Human Services, largely the Medicaid program, grew from $16.8 million to $2.22 billion, 22 times faster than inflation.

This extraordinary growth had many benefits for Maine's citizens. As Mills points out: "Today ours is a society with great and civilized needs; even reactionary observers foresee no likely retreat from these trends."

Nonetheless, Sen, Mills cannot resist repeating the quote from conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

Much has changed about Maine since Gov. Curtis ushered in Maine's version of the "Great Society" in 1969.

The industrial growth of the '60s and early '70s gave way to a relentless shift away from a manufacturing- and natural-resource-based economy as the state experienced significant job losses in shoemaking, apparel and textiles.

Maine's economic growth has slowed significantly and shifted much more to the service sector. State government is now the largest employer and state and local governments represent the largest growth in employment over this period.

What to make of all this? We are fortunate that through all this change we have largely retained the essential character of Maine as a place of great natural beauty and a unique place to live.

Moreover, as Barringer points out in his opening essay, Maine people have "long-standing habits of industry, thrift, innovation, adaptation, and pragmatism and, perhaps above all, mutual trust and lifelong devotion to community, fairness, and democratic decision-making."

As we look ahead, we will need to draw on many of these personal characteristics, particularly innovation, adaptation and pragmatism. Maine as a wonderful place to live and work only makes sense if we have reasonable opportunity for ourselves and for our children.

Just now, our lifelong devotion to community with a small "c" and democratic decision-making with a small "d" often work at cross-purposes with what is best for the state overall. With all the growth in state government, we still seem to be often driven by the most parochial of local interests.

A good example is the recent debate over school consolidation. Objectively, there can be little doubt that both economically and from an educational standpoint, consolidation makes sense.

Yet, few districts have voted for consolidation, and the entire program stands a real chance of being voted down in a statewide referendum.

I fear for our ability to tackle the really difficult issues, such as how to keep Medicaid expenditures from squeezing out adequate funding in other critical areas, such as higher education.

We need to look more fundamentally at how we govern and what changes are needed to make state and local government effective in the best interests of all Mainers.

That is the great challenge of the next 40 years -- and we'd better get started on this soon.

Time is not on our side.