Government We Can Afford

Posted March 12, 2010, at 6:34 p.m.

A new think tank will do a great service to the state if it follows through with answering the questions it recently raised. Envision Maine, an offshoot of the group responsible for the widely touted Brookings Report, is now at work on a plan for reinventing the state’s government.

Another group with another proposal to reform government isn’t significant. What makes this effort look promising is the list of questions — which is not exhaustive, so other good queries can be added — it proposes to answer. The group plans to hold meetings around Maine to gather information on remaking government. Go to www.envisionmaine.org for more information.

On the issue of local control, the group asks, “Can we afford one of everything in every town?” Regarding transportation: “Has the system gotten too large?” “Can we afford two separate systems?” it asks about higher education.

These questions get to the core of Maine’s state and local budget woes: The state has more government than it can afford. This doesn’t mean that there is runaway spending or rampant waste, fraud and abuse, which are often cited as the cause for budget gaps such as the one the state is currently facing.

Rather, it is the harder to get at duplication, inefficiency and “we’ve always done it that way” attitude that cause government spending to outpace residents’ ability to pay for it. If Envision Maine can help the state’s residents understand this, it will be doing a needed service.

To change the equation, government — at all levels — can either raise taxes to cover expenses or it can reduce those expenses. One way to do this is to reduce programs and services. A better first step is to ensure that services are being provided as efficiently as possible. This gets back to Envision Maine’s questions.

“Can we afford one of everything in every town?” If the answer is no, collaboration and cooperation, which communities have been slow to embrace, must be part of the solution. Bangor and Brewer, for example, have formed a committee to look for areas where the neighboring communities can work together. Lewiston and Auburn have merged some departments.

Maine has a backlog of road maintenance and improvements that exceeds $1 billion. Annual bond issues, federal funds and a stagnant gas tax will never significantly reduce that number. So, again, new sources of revenue — tolls, pay-per-mile fees, a higher gas tax — could be found or the amount of transportation infrastructure the state must maintain could be reduced. Maine has nearly twice as many miles of state-maintained roads as does New Hampshire.

Maine — a state with only 1.3 million people — has a university system with seven campuses, a law school, 10 outreach centers and 75 interactive learning sites and a community college system with seven campuses and eight off-campus centers. Often the university and community college facilities are in close proximity.

“Can we afford this?” is an apt question about higher education and all government services. A logical follow-up query is: “Is there a better way?”

Answering that question is the next challenge.

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