As the saying goes, in crisis there is opportunity. Gov. John Baldacci, in his State of the State address Tuesday, outlined a lot of opportunities for Maine. Chief among them was to make Maine into an energy center, a place where thousands of megawatts of clean, renewable energy is generated and transmitted through energy corridors that parallel transportation corridors. In addition to promoting energy as a growth industry for Maine, the governor called for a new vision of Maine, one where our location is an advantage, not a drawback.
At a time of great economic uncertainty, the optimistic tenor of the governor’s speech was as important as its far-reaching content.
“The dawn of a new economic day in Maine is not here yet,” he acknowledged. “But it is coming. We know the direction to look because the sun rises first in Maine.
“We have a plan.”
That plan focuses on familiar areas — health care, education, transportation and government restructuring — but its centerpiece is energy.
The governor announced plans to extend health care to the growing ranks of unemployed workers through a federally funded voucher system. He would set aside $370 million to pay off long-standing debts to the state’s hospitals, helping to remove a political albatross from the neck of health reform efforts. Gov. Baldacci also announced plans to move ahead with a long-talked-about medical school without walls. Medical students from Tufts University and the University of Vermont, where the state now secures seats for Maine students, and the University of New England could finish their training at Eastern Maine Medical Center and Maine Medical Center, with hopes that the new doctors would stay here to practice.
On education, the governor vowed to press ahead with school administration consolidation efforts, saying a referendum to repeal the consolidation law would drag Maine backwards. He also pledged to expand the state’s laptop program to include software to enable parents to connect to the state’s CareerCenters for job information.
The biggest initiatives revolved around energy. The governor pledged to weatherize every Maine home within 20 years, in part through a weatherization corps of young workers. He also touted wood-to-energy and wind projects. But what is really needed, the governor said, is upgraded infrastructure to get this new power to users.
To this end, he announced an agreement with Bangor Hydro to explore the possibility of using the rights-of-way along the interstate and state roads for underground transmission lines. This would avoid the cumbersome process of utilities meeting with dozens of towns and notifying thousands of abutters when proposing new lines. It could also bring broadband and other communications improvements to new communities.
The new corridor, three proposed projects — a Bangor Hydro line to Boston, Central Maine Power Co.’s $1.5 billion grid upgrades and an underground hydroelectric generation facility in Wiscasset — coupled with the state’s goal to vastly increase wind power production could add billions of dollars to the state economy.
As Republican leaders Sen. Kevin Raye and Rep. Josh Tardy, who praised the governor’s emphasis on optimism tempered with reality, said Tuesday night, many details of the governor’s plan need to be fleshed out. But, he has set Maine on a promising course.