Policy Wonk: LePage town halls offer no new ideas

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For over a year Gov. Paul LePage has relentlessly pursued his town hall meeting agenda. Dozens of such meetings have been held; they have taken on a more or less predictable format: a call to further lower taxes, reduce energy costs, broaden corporate tax incentives, reduce regulatory burdens, end welfare fraud.

In each one, the bogey man of the moment is assailed: legislative leaders, immigrants and asylum seekers, proposals to raise the minimum wage, Land for Maine’s Future bonds, the Natural Resources Council, wind and solar energy proponents.

The audience for the most part consists of LePage supporters, local officials, the press, and some dissidents who get by the watchful eye of staffers ostensibly charged with keeping order, but who, in reality, are there to stifle dissenting points of view. The question-and-answer period is completely sanitized: questions must be presented in advance, in writing, and few contentious issues are raised, much less responded to.

What is sorely lacking is anything that could be called a package of new ideas aimed at addressing persistent and long-standing Maine problems, i.e., the fact that we are one of only a few states that have not recovered the job losses of the recent recession; that senior and childhood poverty is high and rising, and among the highest in the nation; that real per-capita income remains below the national average, and is lower today than it was in 2007;  that the backlog of essential road and bridge repairs has grown steadily and Maine’s roads and bridges are among the worst in the nation.

The governor has been in office for nearly six years. He has cut taxes, he has benefited from the growth in natural gas and oil production that has reduced energy costs; his appointees have reduced regulatory standards/burdens, and welfare costs have been reduced.

But his agenda, his appointees, have not produced economic well-being. The problems have not been reduced, and many have grown worse. Doing more of the same, and hoping a different result will emerge, is insanity.

A recent book (focused on national problems) by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, “That Used To Be Us,” offered five useful remedial steps – a renewal of ideas that made the country great. These ideas seem particularly well-suited to Maine. In my view, these five areas of renewed, consistent, and long-term investment in Maine are essential if we are serious about addressing the problems noted. They include:

1 — Statewide investment in public education at all levels – preschool, K-12, community college, the university system. Creating a handful of charter schools does not offset the long-standing disinvestment that our systems of public education have endured for far too long.

2 — Statewide investment in infrastructure – roads, bridges, ports, water supply, sewage and treatment systems, high-speed communication and electrical grid transmission system upgrades. Our miserly and piece-meal approach to infrastructure needs compromises public health and safety, and stifles economic growth.

3 — The jobs/economic and biomedical success of Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor cries out for statewide replication. Investment in research and development at facilities such as the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at Orono, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science, the Gulf of Maine Aquarium, and research arms at Maine’s larger hospitals offer a jobs/economic and social multiplier effect far greater than current corporate welfare programs.

4 — In a state with one of the oldest populations in the country, we need a totally different attitude toward, and investment in, our small but growing immigrant communities. They provide Maine a long-needed racial and cultural diversity. Moreover, Portland data indicates that these communities are on average better educated than the general population, and they seek more education; they are succeeding in Portland-area schools; they seek and find work; they have larger families, offsetting the loss of young people in the general population.

Investment in these immigrant communities in the form of housing assistance, adult education, access to job training and employment, English as a second language courses, will have a stimulating effect on our economy and within the society as a whole.

5 — Maine’s environment is the single largest job creator in the state. We annually host millions of summer (and an increasing number of year-round) visitors; corporate efforts to weaken or compromise state and local regulations that protect the health and safety, the air and water quality of Maine people and visitors is economic madness. We need to invest what is needed to enforce, fine-tune, and upgrade this regulatory framework.

In short, Maine’s economic future and long-term quality of life does not turn on LePage’s town hall meeting agenda – his “scapegoating” of one group or another, and his penchant for “trickle down” economics. It turns on whether Maine has the courage to make the investments needed in the areas that make Maine a great, unique state.

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.