Report calls for reshaping Augusta

Posted Dec. 12, 2010, at 7:32 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 12, 2010, at 8:54 p.m.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Reduce the Legislature’s size. Dump outdated programs. Chop the number of counties in half. Judge state programs by outcomes.

Those ideas are getting new life in a report by an independent, nonpartisan think tank that sees its recommendations as step No. 1 to revitalizing Maine’s economy.

Contributors to Envision Maine’s report, “Reinventing Maine Government,” include prominent figures such as former Gov. Angus King, former Central Maine Power President David Flanagan and Jill Goldthwait, former independent state senator who headed the Appropriations Committee and now is government relations di-rector with Jackson Laboratory. Others include business, financial and health care organizations.

A recurring theme during this year’s gubernatorial campaign was restructuring state government to make it leaner, more cost-efficient, relevant to people’s needs, and accountable — especially as expected revenues for the next state budget fall far below what’s needed to keep government in its present structure running.

The report seeks to go beyond anecdotes and ideology by comparing Maine with other rural states and the country as a whole, said Envision Maine President Alan Caron.

“It’s not about big or small” government, said Caron. “It’s about smart.”

As a member of Gov.-elect Paul LePage’s transition advisory team, Caron has the Republican’s ear. LePage has read the report and worked some of its ideas into his campaign speeches. Transition co-chairman Tarren Bragdon said the LePage team “will be heavily influenced by these ideas.”

Among the themes that have been pushed in the past are curbing legislative costs. With each House member representing 8,700 constituents and each senator representing 37,600, the ratio reflects something from horse-and-buggy days, before the age of modern communications, says the report. And during regular sessions, each can submit an unlimited number of bills.

Those and other inefficiencies make the cost of Maine’s Legislature relative to income 132 percent higher than the U.S. average and 68 percent higher than the average of similarly rural states, says the report. Recommendations include slashing the Legislature’s size by a third, reducing the length of sessions by 50 percent, limit-ing each lawmaker to five bills in each two-year session and imposing 12-year lifetime term limits on all legislators.

Beyond the Capitol dome, state government is Maine’s largest employer and most diverse industry, says the report. But it finds its organization too closely modeled as a hierarchal bureaucracy that emerged a century ago with too little emphasis on results. It says workers and managers should be more involved in finding efficiencies and lowering costs.

Envision’s report calls for budgeting for outcomes rather than costs, performance goals, elimination of red tape and subjecting every program to a full review every five years.

Reshaping and consolidating government is not a new idea. Democratic Gov. John Baldacci says he’s been doing it for the last eight years.

Under Baldacci’s watch, state government’s work force has been trimmed by 1,000 to about 13,800, a spokesman said. Steps have been taken to consolidate county and state corrections, many school units, and state departments dealing with human services and substance abuse.

“The governor has not been shy about making government more efficient,” said David Farmer, Baldacci’s spokesman. “He would be the first to tell you that more could be done.”

Envision’s report says changes are not just needed at the state level. It asserts that Maine has too many counties — 16 — and suggests redrawing the lines to reduce the number to eight. This would foster further consolidation and regional delivery of services such as road maintenance, plowing and public safety.

Another theme that echoed through the gubernatorial campaign — allowing student-teacher ratios to increase closer to the national average — comes out in the report. It also calls for another round of school district consolidations and putting the savings into the classrooms, an effort started under a 2007 law pushed by Baldacci.

Baldacci’s successor, LePage, supports the creation of charter schools, and so does the report. The schools would have freedom to innovate that’s lacking in public schools, but Envision Maine says that would have to come with accountability.

At the higher education level, the report recommends establishing a “true” University of Maine System to replace the present system it calls “a network of largely autonomous campuses.”

Reinventing Maine surfaces four years after a Brookings Institution report, also engineered by Caron, that generated considerable discussion among government watchers. While few of its recommendations went far, a central message stuck: Dig deeper to find ways to make government more efficient and sustainable, Caron said.

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