Maine could save more than $1 billion if the state could find a way to bring its costs — including its costs for welfare, health care and corrections — in line with national averages, according to a report released Wednesday.
“Maine has a basic math problem,” said Alan Caron, president of the nonpartisan think tank Envision Maine, which helped write the report, “Reinventing Maine Government.”
As a percentage of income, Mainers spend about 13 percent more for state and local government than the national average and 16 percent more than similar rural states, according to the report.
“The numbers are troubling, and the trends even more so,” reads the report, which was co-produced by GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit based in Portland.
First the numbers: Maine pays 69 percent more for welfare and Medicaid than the national average. That amounts to $361 million, according to the report.
Another $205 million could be found if Maine brought its miscellaneous spending — a catch-all category that includes everything that isn’t in another spending category — to the national average.
Maine could save $100 million by bringing its corrections costs in line with the national average. Now, Maine spends 101 percent more on its costs per inmate. Maine spends roughly $93,500 per inmate compared to the national average of about $46,000.
The cost of Maine’s Legislature is 132 percent more, relative to income, than the national average. That’s another $8 million.
Maine’s biennial budget is about $5.8 billion.
Now the trends: The report cites three “great ticking time bombs” in Maine. They are the aging population, unfunded pension plan liabilities and the rising cost of health care.
To defuse the first bomb, the report calls for efforts to create jobs, thus allowing younger people to say in Maine and attract entrepreneurs from out of state.
The $4.4 billion in unpaid obligations for public employee health benefits is perhaps the biggest financial crisis facing the state. A constitutional amendment requires the debt be paid by 2028, an obligation the report’s authors say must be met despite inevitable calls to delay the repayment.
Among its recommendations in this area, the report calls for raising the eligibility age for retirement and health benefits to reflect longer life expectancy.
To reduce health care costs, Mainers must adopt healthier lifestyles, avoiding tobacco use, obesity and the abuse of alcohol and drugs, the report finds.
To help reduce legislative costs, the report calls for shrinking the size of the Legislature to 25 senators and 75 House members with three House districts in each Senate district. Now there are 151 House members and 35 senators.
Sen. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, said while he didn’t personally object to reducing the size of the Legislature, his constituents — and those of many other lawmakers in rural areas — have been less than enthusiastic about the idea.
“We’ve gone down this road,” Perry said, citing a bill that passed the House last year designed to cut the number of lawmakers. “I think that when some of the people who were pushing it went back home, they heard, ‘I barely see you now, and you want to make the district bigger?’”
Furthermore, Perry predicted that if the number of lawmakers was decreased, the number of support staffers would have to increase to adequately serve constituents.
A lifetime term limit of 12 years for lawmakers is also among the report’s recommendations. Maine’s term limits law now has a “revolving door loophole” that allows lawmakers to jump between the House and Senate after serving a maximum of eight years in either house.
But foremost, it calls for limiting the number of bills each lawmaker can propose in each two-year session. Last session, the Legislature dealt with more than 1,800 bills. Under the limits suggested in the report, the Legislature, assuming the current makeup of its membership, would consider a maximum of 930 bills.
“That’s ridiculous, an arbitrary number,” said Perry, who thought a better way to limit the number of bills would be to require that any bill that calls for a tax cut or a spending increase include a way to pay for it.
The report also calls for shrinking the number of Maine counties from 16 to 8. It also calls for increasing the number of county commissioners from three, in most cases, to nine to better represent their constituents.
“I think counties need to be more of a factor in Maine because, in many cases, we can deliver services better than municipalities and the state government,” said Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci, who cited the county’s handling of the regional emergency dispatch.
Baldacci said he didn’t think much effort should be put into redrawing county lines, but called for more cooperative agreements between the existing counties.
Baldacci also said he didn’t agree with a proposal in the report that elected commissioners should appoint county staff, such as the county sheriff, rather than have voters fill that position.
“We don’t elect the head of the local police force, or the librarian in town, and we shouldn’t be doing that for counties either,” reads the report.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said Wednesday that while he found many points in the report interesting, he, too, believed the county sheriff should remain an elected position.
Popular election of the sheriff is part of the Maine constitution, he said, and makes him more responsible to his constituents.
“If I don’t answer my phone and do what’s right, there’s a price to pay,” said Ross, who is seeking re-election this year, likely for the last time, he said.
On the subject of public education, the report recommends that the state move its student-teacher ratios to the national average. Maine now has 11.3 students for every teacher, compared to the national average of 15.8 students per teacher.
“Ten years ago, we had teacher-student ratios at the national average,” the report reads. “Even though we’ve dramatically lowered the numbers since then, our test scores are about what they were then.”
The report also calls for changes in higher education. The report concludes that the University of Maine and Community College systems should remain separate, but be overseen by a single board.
The report can be found online at https://sites.google.com/site/envisionmaine/reinventing-maine-government