Top priorities for LePage

Posted Jan. 03, 2011, at 7:45 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:29 a.m.

Former Waterville Mayor Paul LePage will become governor tomorrow, and bright and early Thursday morning, he will begin the hard work of turning around Maine’s ship of state.

A prediction for 2011? Gov. LePage will confront an opposition more powerful, better organized and more vocal than any a previous governor has faced. These people will wake every day with a single goal in mind: to obstruct the new governor’s efforts to transform the state.

In this effort, the new governor will have a powerful ally in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but the task he faces is a monumental one nonetheless. After a generation of being in power, the tax-and-spend crowd that got Maine into this mess now finds itself on the outside looking in.

The new governor will face another challenge as well, which is maintaining, in the face of a seemingly endless list of problems that need solving, a single-minded focus on a small handful of absolutely critical policy objectives.

What are the things LePage and his legislative allies absolutely must do? On my short list are five things.

First, as a recent Forbes magazine article put it, the new administration has to “salvage Maine’s economy” from “the convoluted regulatory system, poor infrastructure and high taxes” that led it to rate Maine as the worst state for business. The Legislature’s Republican leadership already has taken an important first step in this di-rection by establishing a special select committee on regulatory fairness and reform. The very first bill the Legislature is to consider, in fact, will be legislation to chip away at the mountain of regulation which confronts every job-creating Maine business. Getting that bill passed and taking other steps to make Maine safe for business should be the new administration’s top priority.

One of the other things the LePage team could do to improve the state’s business climate would be to tackle the state’s staggeringly high health insurance costs. Getting a handle on health insurance premiums was supposed to have been a top priority of the Baldacci administration, but according to a recent survey by the AHIP Center for Policy and Research, Maine still has the fourth highest health insurance premiums in the country. While the end seems near for Baldacci’s Dirigo Health program, LePage and his allies will need to find some alternative approach with which to replace it — one that actually does lower health insurance premiums moving forward.

Maine’s businesses also are hobbled by high energy costs. Of the lower 48 states, Maine has the ninth highest commercial electricity rates and the 13th highest industrial rates. Residential customers pay some of the nation’s highest rates for electricity as well. The LePage team will need a carefully crafted strategy to lower energy costs for businesses and consumers alike and also will have to overcome a well-financed network of groups opposed to any kind of electricity generation in Maine.

Another top priority for the LePage team should be education reform. Much can be done to repair Maine’s abysmal business climate and put people back to work, but Maine’s long-term economic growth will require the kind of highly educated work force the state now does not have.

Thirty-six percent of Mainers ages 25 to 64 have a two- or four-year postsecondary degree, which puts the state in 30th place nationally. In neighboring New Hampshire, 45.5 percent of adults have a post-secondary degree, and in Massachusetts, very nearly half — 49.8 percent — of adults have that level of educational attain-ment.

Improving educational outcomes will mean giving Maine’s schools a major overhaul. Promising reforms such as public charter schools need to be implemented, the many mandates that burden Maine’s schools must be lifted, and efforts to dramatically improve the effectiveness of the state’s teachers and school administrators must be made.

The fifth and final policy priority for the incoming administration should be reforming the state’s dysfunctional and ineffective welfare system. Maine’s extraordinarily high level of welfare dependency emerged as a major campaign issue last fall, with polls showing a majority of Mainers concerned that the state’s welfare pro-grams are creating greater levels of dependency with each passing day.

Fixing welfare will be a huge undertaking and will be fought at every turn by the state’s “welfare-industrial complex,” the enormous network of advocacy groups and provider agencies that depend for their livelihood on high levels of welfare dependency.

None of the five things on this list will be easy to do. Each set of issues is complex, and for each, a powerful status quo will need to be overcome. Though there will be other challenges that the new team in Augusta will face, maintaining a focus on these five issues will do more than anything else to put Maine people back to work and to put the state of Maine back on track.

Stephen Bowen of Rockport directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His blog can be found at www.GreatSchoolsforME.org.

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