Forecaster Forum: College bill needs second look

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The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think-tank, issued a report last week well-timed to start a debate on government spending. The report, called the “Maine Piglet Book,” tabulated around $2 billion in what the MHPC sees as wasteful pork.

Yet it’s one thing to pick apart line items, slash a small program here, delay or cancel a capital project there. The “Piglet” book does that; it declares what it identifies as waste, nothing more. This doesn’t acknowledge how structural reforms in service delivery could help, especially in big government expenses like personnel costs.

Let’s consider some compensation levels within components of state government. The book lays out the top 20 “departments” in state government and the amount paid to employees for wages and benefits. Five of the top 20 are institutions of higher education in Maine, with the University of Maine in Orono ranking number two overall with over $150 million a year in employee costs; the University of Southern Maine is not far behind in fourth place, with over $100 million spent on employees.

UMaine in Farmington and Augusta and Maine Maritime Academy also make the list. And of course, there are still three other UMaine system campuses, the UMaine office, and the community college system campuses and central office.

Clearly, Maine spends a lot of taxpayer money to keep these institutions operating, and thousands of students spend millions on tuition every year to make up the difference. While campuses vary in types of academic programs offered, there are basic services that are quite similar, such as residence halls, dining services, human resources, facilities management and others. How do those costs stack up?

USM, for example, charges over $230 per credit hour and you’ll rack up a bill of over $9,000 to live on campus and get your meals there. Prefer to start at Southern Maine or Central Maine Community College? The tuition will run you only $84 per credit hour and close to $8,000 to live on campus and get your meals.

Maybe you live in Aroostook County and are assessing your choices for those first two years in Presque Isle. If you attend the UMaine campus there, you’ll invest over $200 per credit hour and nearly $7,000 per year for your room and food on campus. Down the road is Northern Maine Community College, with credit hours costing just over $80 each and less than $6,000 per year for room and board.

With transferability of credit hours, why are Maine taxpayers subsidizing the UMaine system when community colleges offer credit hours for a third of the price? Why does it cost less for room and meals on campus at the community colleges and why do costs vary so much between campuses? The answer is simple. There is no central management of these basic services to streamline delivery and find efficiencies.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, stuck her neck out in the last legislative session and proposed to start higher education reform with LD 1362. She proposed unifying the governing boards of Maine’s various institutions of higher education. This first step would ensure a planning and budgetary process going forward that would fully enable efficiencies to be implemented. The proposal was killed in committee.

UMaine Chancellor Richard Pattenaude has a report that recommends sharing services within the system campuses, but no consolidation or synergies with the community colleges. That is not real reform.

The Piglet book calls out some wasteful spending, including in higher education, but stops there. It doesn’t recommend solutions, like structural reforms, rather spending caps. It is time for some real leadership that rises above parochialism and partisanship.

Dusting off Rep. Rotundo’s bill would be a good start.

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About the author

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal in Lewiston and an Androscoggin County commissioner. He can be reached at