MATTHEW GAGNON

Maine needs a youth movement

Posted Oct. 20, 2011, at 4:47 p.m.

I know where Gov. LePage is coming from in pushing for an exemption of pensions from the state income tax, but I still don’t like it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of cutting taxes for as many people as possible, and it isn’t as if I don’t understand why he is pushing it. It is both a way to make up for the cuts in the pension system for retirees and a way to make Maine more attractive to a group of people with an impressive economic footprint.

My problem with it is that it has the potential to make one of Maine’s greatest challenges a great deal worse. Maine is already the oldest state in the country, with the median resident age being almost 43.

As reported by the Bangor Daily News last week, in the last decade Maine schools have been losing students as the number of infants to 14-year-olds dropped by 9.5 percent, while the number of 45-to-69-year-olds climbed by 30 percent.

Maine is facing a slow, grinding death driven by out-migration of young people, low birth rates and in-migration of older people.

In western countries with intricate welfare states, one of the most important things to pay attention to is the “dependency ratio,” the percentage of people under the age of 15 or over the age of 65 who are the primary focus of state assistance, as compared with the “working population.”

With Maine’s hair growing more than a little gray, there comes a requirement for more state benefits to care for that aging population. With fewer young workers to pay into the tax system which funds those benefits, the system becomes strained.

We saw a preview of this in what was the looming pension crisis in the state. The unfunded liability was created not only by bad public policy but also by the giant weight on the system that the growth of retirees in the state ensured.

There is no doubt that an older population has its advantages. Lower crime, poverty and social unrest coupled with higher standards of living are all hallmarks of older populations. Those advantages, however, should be tempered by the vitality and spirit of youth, the presence of young families and working-age Mainers.

There’s nothing wrong with being old, but Maine has the stench of death on it and needs an injection of life to restore a healthy balance. A vibrant society is built as much on the impetuousness of the young as it is on the steady hand of the old. Focusing so heavily on retirees won’t do the trick.

In truth, I really don’t have much of a problem with Gov. LePage helping retirees by cutting their taxes. Frankly, it wouldn’t cause me to lose any sleep if his plan passes. But what I want to see is a laserlike focus on attracting the young and the productive to the state.

Let’s hear about some policies that are aimed at encouraging young people to stay in Maine. Let’s hear more about not only growing jobs in the state but in diversifying the types of businesses in Maine that provide those jobs.

Let’s talk about growing the economic hubs in Maine, making them magnets to attract the types of industries that young people want to work in. Let’s talk about tax policy that attempts to give the younger generations a reason to stay in Maine, start careers, get married and have kids. Let’s talk with candor and seriousness about reversing the tide of an aging Maine.

So, by all means, give retirees a break. But Maine needs kids. It needs more of them to be born, it needs more of them to stay and it needs more of them to come back. Give them a reason to.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

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