Too Much Government

Posted Sept. 30, 2010, at 12:21 a.m.

Maine spends far more than the national average on corrections, welfare and health care, but well below the average on higher education and parks and natural resources, according to a report released Wednesday. Does this spending reflect the state’s priorities?

That is the question — raised in a devastating, but necessary, report by Envision Maine — that should be answered by every candidate for governor this year. If the candidates believe this spending doesn’t match priorities — and we would argue it does not — they must say how they will better align state spending with the appropriate needs and goals.

While much of the report’s conclusions are not new, its underlying message — that Maine has more government than it can afford — must be repeated, because it is not widely enough accepted to spur action. In fact, while Mainers complain bitterly about their high taxes, a referendum to repeal a school consolidation law aimed at reducing spending easily made it on the ballot (although it was rejected by voters), and efforts as small as merging state natural resource agencies have been doomed by vocal opposition.

Maine’s system of providing lots of services in thousands of locales is hugely expensive. “Maine has a basic math problem,” said Alan Caron, an author of the report and president of Envision Maine. “We have limited resources to provide services and invest in the future. We can’t afford both.”

So far, Maine has chosen to invest in services, a lot of them for a small, but dispersed, population.

As a result, Mainers spend 15 percent of their income on state and local government, significantly higher than the national average. The argument that Maine spends more because we’re a rural state doesn’t hold water: Maine’s state and local government spending is 16 percent higher than the rural state average, according to the report. The rural states used in the study were Vermont, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and Mississippi.

Specifically, spending on welfare and Medicaid is more than twice the rural average and corrections spending is 136 percent higher than the rural state average, the report says. State spending on health care (not including Medicaid) is 80 percent higher than the rural state average.

How did this happen? With corrections, Maine has a third as many inmates as the national average, but a lot of jails where they are housed. All these buildings and their staffs are expensive. Work by the Baldacci administration to consolidate jails remains controversial.

When it comes to health care and Medicaid, Maine has been extremely generous in its benefits, with eligibility requirements well below the national average. The state has also sought to maximize its receipt of federal dollars by adding services and people to the Medicaid rolls.

Even where Maine spends less than the national average, it doesn’t necessarily spend that money wisely. For example, higher education spending supports 15 university and community college campuses — with little coordination — for the equivalent of 35,000 students, the size of a single major university campus. Again, all those campuses and their administration takes money away from research and educating students.

Likewise, Maine spends more on kindergarten to grade 12 education than the national average, but not necessarily in the classroom. While Maine’s K-12 public school enrollment has steadily declined for more than a decade, the number of administrators has consistently increased. Worse, student achievement has declined.

A proposal from the Baldacci administration to reduce significantly the number of school districts — admittedly heavy-handed after years of incentives and prodding had achieved little — was significantly watered down to gain support in the Legislature. Still, the measure faced repeal last year.

The solutions proposed by Envision Maine to these many problems — invest in preventive care to reduce health care costs, more school district consolidation and raising pay for the best teachers, and reducing the size of the Legislature — have long been talked about and aren’t especially ambitious. Some even have been implemented.

Pledging to shrink government is easy. Doing it is not. While many rail against Medicaid spending, for example, those dollars fund local hospitals and service providers that provide jobs, often in areas with limited employment opportunities. Ditto for nearly every government expenditure.

What is needed then is for a leader to pledge to use the report as a guide for the serious decisions that must be made. There is plenty for candidates of every political persuasion to like, from the need to trim welfare expenses to the strong case for investing more in higher education.

Candidates will convince voters they are serious about moving Maine ahead by showing they understand the depth of the problem and, more important, saying specifically what they will do about it.

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