Get The Weekly Bancroft & Annual Newsletter delivered straight to your inbox!

We know what Maine's problems are, let's start solving them

One more report listing things that so many previous reports listed isn't a solution.

The good news in the press last week was that Maine is weathering out this recession somewhat better than the rest of the country.

"Weathering out the recession" sounds like it must come from a Dave Mallett song. If Maine's premier singer-songwriter hasn't written about this one, I hope he is working on it.

The conclusion that Maine is doing better in this recession leans on the thin reed that Maine's poverty rate for 2009 was actually slightly less than the rate in 2008, at a time when the national poverty rate is increasing.

Moreover, Maine's poverty rate of 11.4 percent is below the national average of 13.8 percent.

While our lower poverty rate is, on balance, a good thing, most economic indicators suggest Maine's economy is performing well below the national average and below most New England states. Our median household income, according to the Census Bureau, is the lowest in New England and our economy has created just a literal handful of net jobs over the past five years.

Maine's difficult economic situation has been well-chronicled in several studies over the past few years.

The latest, a joint effort of the Maine Development Foundation and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, is titled "Making Maine Work, Critical Investments for the Maine Economy."

This study cites 16 previous studies dating back to 2002 as references – and even with this, it doesn't cite the two studies that for my money are the most authoritative: the Brookings Institution Study of 2006 commissioned by GrowSmart and the special report of the Legislature's Joint Select Committee on Maine's Future Prosperity in 2008.

From all these studies we can conclude that Maine's problems have been fully identified – and identified and identified again. They are: 1) an aging population that is putting pressure on the state's overly generous health and welfare services, 2) high costs of health insurance, 3) high costs of energy, 4) a burdensome state regulatory environment, 5) a high tax structure, and 6) a sub-par transportation system.

Against this litany of problems, what do we have going for us? Two things, according to Making Maine Work: a wonderful quality of life and a loyal, skilled (but aging) work force. Fortunately for Maine's future, these are substantial advantages, particularly Maine's quality of life.

To its credit, the MDF and Chamber report attempts to address Maine's significant problems with a 12-step plan aimed at investing in productivity and managing cost inflation.

While the group gets an A for effort here, the recommendations themselves deserve no more than a C-plus in effectiveness. There simply aren't enough teeth in these recommendations to give me confidence that they will make much of a difference.

For example, in addressing health care costs, the report suggests that we challenge Maine's health care leaders to reduce annual increases to below the national average.

Good thought, but we will certainly need to do more than "challenge the leaders" to get any results here.

Or on education: the report suggests creating an "integrated" approach that would involve a "global" budget. Again, all this is fine, but such efforts have been tried before without effect. Why would this one be different?

After reading this report, I applaud the good intentions, but do not believe that this effort will do more than add to the pile of reports on the Maine economy that gather dust in Augusta.

What this state needs is a breakthrough strategy that has the imagination to think big and the perseverance to see it through.

Part of this breakthrough strategy clearly must be tax reform.

The fact that a modest but reasonable first step in tax reform was defeated last year by a citizen veto – a veto that had the endorsement of many local chambers of commerce around the state – is not a hopeful sign for "break-through."

Part of the break-through strategy also must do much more to capitalize on Maine quality of place (to its credit this aspect of the strategy does seem to be recognized by Making Maine Work). What is needed here is a new level of imagination, vision and effort, and sizeable investment.

Will Maine's next governor and Legislature be up to the task? If the past is prologue, it seems unlikely.

Yet these are not normal times. If we send talented, pragmatic, determined leaders to Augusta, we may have a shot. Much depends on it.