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Stop spending on benefits beyond our ability to afford them

The people of Maine have spoken emphatically. Change we needed and change we got -- an across-the-board sweep by Republicans.

The new governor, Paul LePage, will have the support of Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House. Republicans have not had this kind of control since 1966 -- some 44 years ago.

If LePage is a better governor than he was a candidate, this could be a good thing for Maine.

Over the past 30 years we have become one of the most generous, socially conscious states in the country -- and we just do not have the economy to sustain it.

The state has extended Medicaid well beyond the poor for whom it was designed. We have added mandates that make our health insurance much more expensive than most other states.

We have lavished money on K-12 education but see little improvement in quality or achievement. We also have become a state where it is difficult and costly to do business, slowing job creation to a trickle.

The sum of 30 years of mostly Democratic rule in Augusta is a state in inexorable decline, a state which our children are leaving for greater opportunities, and the burden of social programs we cannot afford falls on the shoulders of fewer and fewer of us.

We must change. Change has been debated in Augusta over the past eight years of the Baldacci administration, but the Democrats have simply been unable to deliver it.

Now let us see if Republicans can do any better. Gov.-elect LePage is a fiscal conservative who has suggested he will cut services and get Maine's budget in balance.

He also favors a substantial lowering of Maine's relatively high income tax -- from the current 8.5 percent to 5 percent. He has proposed an approach to simplify Maine's difficult regulatory environment.

If he can pull these approaches off, the state will be substantially better positioned to grow. For economic growth we need to improve the environment for business overall and entrepreneurs in particular.

An improved regulatory environment, a state budget that is in balance, and a significantly lower income tax would be a fine start.

This is a daunting task. To be able to balance the budget and lower the income tax means that the biggest sources of state spending, Medicaid and K-12 education, will both have to be restructured. Believe me, any proposals to reduce either of these programs, however well-designed, will be greeted by busloads of those who depend on these programs flooding every hearing in Augusta.

Following through on restructuring may make the recent French strikes look tame in comparison. LePage is a tough guy but it will take more than mere toughness to pull this off.

The governor-elect is about to get Lesson One in politics: It is much easier to be on the side-lines offering criticism than it is to be responsible for actually changing things.

In fact, one of my greatest fears about this election was that a LePage victory would be combined with a Democratic Legislature -- and that gridlock would ensue.

But no, voters expressed their frustration with Maine's economic situation with a surprisingly strong political statement. They have given Gov.-elect LePage the opportunity to do what he said he would. Even in today's volatile electoral environment, this is quite a shocker.

The Republican victory is also not quite as one-sided as it seems. At the same time the voters of Maine turned out Democrats at the state level, they returned, rather handily, our two Democratic incumbent members of Congress.

Both Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree are, by the way, substantially further left in their political views than the average Mainer.

Go figure -- my view is that this midterm swing to Republicans is wide but not deep. If Republicans in Augusta want to keep their seats in 2012, they had better effect some change.

If the Maine economy is not notably better by 2012, we are likely to see a return to Democratic control, at least in the House. If that happens, Gov.-elect LePage might well end up as a one-term governor.

But all this lies in the future. For the moment, I am optimistic that Maine has a chance to "right the ship" and structurally change the state in a way that could provide a base, finally, for solid economic growth.

It will be a difficult and wrenching transition -- much like OD'ing on castor oil. Nonetheless, it will be worth it. There is a window of opportunity here. Let us hope our new governor and Legislature seize it.