AUGUSTA, Maine — Calling the present a time of “great turmoil” but also “incredible opportunity,” Gov. John Baldacci said Thursday that Maine can emerge from the recession by focusing on its energy and natural resources industries while continuing to streamline government.
In the final State of the State speech of his administration, Baldacci sought to set an optimistic tone about Maine’s economic future by touting the state’s capacity to become a national leader in the production of renewable energy.
He also announced plans to push for adoption of national education standards as well as teacher evaluations as Maine competes for a slice of billions in federal education dollars being made available to progressive states.
But the Democratic governor also warned of painful cuts in state services in the face of a $438 million budget shortfall, adding the state must maintain life-sustaining services while changing the way it helps people.
And in comments that elicited enthusiastic applause from Republicans but a lukewarm response from lawmakers within his own party, Baldacci reiterated his opposition to balancing the budget by raising taxes, saying Maine’s working families and businesses cannot afford it.
“I don’t question the motives of those who seek a tax increase,” Baldacci said in his address to a joint session of the Legislature. “They look around and see real problems and people struggling. Their hearts tell them they have to do something. My heart tells me the same thing. But I know that the best way to help all people is to promote job growth and economic recovery.”
Baldacci’s roughly 36-minute speech contained few new initiatives. Instead, the governor focused on ways that he said the state could grow its way out of the recession by focusing on existing strengths.
In the area of renewable energy, Baldacci set a goal of producing 5 gigawatts of electricity from offshore wind farms by 2030 and said he would propose legislation to help in that ambitious effort. Maine is already New England’s largest producer of land-based wind energy.
“There are no sure things, but the [renewable energy] has tremendous potential to create thousands of jobs in Maine and attract billions of dollars worth of investment,” Baldacci said.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Maine in Orono, the Ocean Energy Institute in Rockland and other labs are developing wind and tidal energy technologies and biofuels from wood that will help to build a “new energy future,” he said.
Baldacci also said that the Great Maine Forest Initiative could become a national model as it brings together environmentalists, landowners and industry representatives. The initiative is being presented to the Obama administration next month in hopes of receiving federal funding for what officials are calling “landscape-scale conservation” while simultaneously strengthening Maine’s forest products industry.
Long-term job creation in every sector depends on quality education, the governor said. Baldacci said the statewide school consolidation efforts are producing real savings, and he pledged to oppose any legislative efforts “to undermine the law.”
But in remarks he acknowledged would be controversial in the education community, Baldacci called on Maine to adopt national benchmarks for gauging students’ performance and integrating student achievement into teacher evaluations.
“How can we, in good faith, hand out grades to students based on how they perform if we fail to do the same thing for the people teaching them?” Baldacci said. “Recognizing good teachers is an overdue reform.”
Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle praised many aspects of the governor’s final State of the State address.
“All and all, I thought the governor’s speech was balanced and reflected the times and the optimism that should be conveyed by a governor,” said Rep. Josh Tardy, a Newport Republican and House minority leader.
Tardy also applauded the Democratic governor for clearly restating his opposition to new taxes – something that could emerge as a major battle in the shortened legislative session.
“Now we just have to make sure the Legislature follows through,” Tardy said.
“He was realistic about what he proposed, and I think he did a good job of talking about the challenges,” added House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. But on the issue of new taxes, Pingree said there are strong concerns about the potential impacts of cutting health and human services programs for the disabled and elderly.
“For all of us, everything is on the table,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he believed the governor struck the right tone. Raye said he was also pleased to hear the governor’s anti-tax pledge but was disappointed that Baldacci included several lines encouraging Maine to uphold the recent tax-restructuring bill during a referendum this June.
Baldacci’s references to the tax reform package received some of the longest sustained applause of the night from other Democrats.
The law, which never took effect because of the pending ballot question, would lower the top income tax rate for Mainers earning less than $250,000 a year from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent. But critics, led by the GOP, insist the law would harm the poor and discourage tourism by applying the sales tax to additional goods and services and raising Maine’s meals and lodging tax.
“I was disappointed, obviously, that the governor chose to inject that into the speech,” Raye said. “I certainly see it very differently than the way he characterized it this evening.”
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said she was pleased with the speech but wants to see more details about the educational assessment and teacher evaluation proposals unveiled Thursday night.
“I’m interested in learning more about what the governor has in mind and how they align with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top [initiative], but I don’t know enough about them yet,” Cain said.