Probing Politics: A New Year's wish-list for better government

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In politics, the year ahead will be remembered as among the most challenging in history. A lingering recession, a nation far deeper in debt and municipalities being asked to pick up costs that state government can no longer afford are forcing politicians to make choices. Here are some wishes for the New Year that would improve their focus, get better outcomes and save money.

• Debate the merits of policy proposals.

The media should avoid the easy headlines of he-said-she-said and concentrate on substance. For example, Sarah Palin should have been hung by her thumbs when she twisted the end-of-life provision of health-care reform into her catchy “death panels” twitter-litter. A little counseling, which the proposal attempted to introduce, would save many people anguish and lessen the enormous cost for not addressing end-of-life decisions.

• Adopt the health-care model from New Hampshire.

In the absence of national health-care reform, Maine needs to change its policy on health coverage. It’s well past time to pull the plug on Dirigo Health and create a competitive market for health insurance. Like New Hampshire, Maine should have a MEMIC-like non-profit company governed by the policy holders to guarantee health coverage including taxpayer subsidies. Prices in Maine would likely drop to those found in New Hampshire (about half of today’s cost) and the money saved would go back into paychecks and the economy right where it belongs.

• Elect a governor with business experience, vision and determination.

Maine’s next CEO must have experience fixing things that are large, complex and broken. That requirement will shorten the list of current candidates to less than a half-a-dozen. He or she also needs to propose and pass a 30-year strategy that produces a robust economy with a foundation of in-state career opportunities for Maine kids.

• Get higher education higher on the agenda.

Maine needs a plan for higher education. Currently, public higher education includes the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy. Taxpayers and students are spending limited dollars to support 15 campuses and 10 outreach facilities in more then 20 communities. Supporting all that infrastructure, redundant overhead and political turf means we lose sight of the most important educational outcome: jobs for Maine people. Note to next governor and Legislature: If you could start from scratch, what would higher ed look like?

• Nurture the private sector.

Jobs in the private sector are what make it possible to fund governments and non-profit organizations. If the private sector thrives, everything improves for everybody. When it suffers, we all suffer. That doesn’t suggest that compromising our environment or exploiting workers is acceptable – but such practices are not as prevalent in Maine as the anti-business legislators who seek to have government micro-manage the private sector.

• Reform the Legislature.

There are three things that will help make the Maine Legislature focus on priorities while saving the taxpayers’ money. First, reduce the size of the House to 105 seats, three per senate district. It will reduce costs by more than $3.5 million. Second, cut the time that legislators can spend in Augusta by half, to 90 days in the first year and 30 days in the second. That would assure attention is placed on only the most important matters and further reduce the $24 million cost of the Legislature. Third, end term limits. The current limits were instituted to end the reign of former House Speaker John Martin. He’s still there, but we have lost the valued institutional memory of others. Leave the limit in place for legislative leaders to avoid the Martin malevolence.

• Publish and explain roll call votes.

News outlets that take positions on issues should publish how legislators in their circulation area voted on those issues. If people don’t know how their elected officials vote on issues of broad public interest, they can’t make informed decisions when it comes time for re-election.

• End public financing of elections.

The Maine Clean Election Act is costing taxpayers millions of dollars with no measurable benefit. The law simply forces money into other means of influencing elections that are largely under the control of legislative leaders. Let’s just drop the pretense and save the taxpayers’ money.

• Find the solution in the mirror.

Ultimately, the quality and cost of government is determined by the people we elect to represent us. Given the condition of the Maine economy, we haven’t done a very good job compared to most every other state. Your job is to do your homework, know how legislators vote and tell them what you expect of them. You also can ask your legislators how they feel about this wish list and you’ll get a better sense of how they think. That’s a wish only you can fulfill. So, what do you think?

Sidebar Elements

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future and a Falmouth resident and town councilor. His column is published biweekly, and he can be reached at