Editor’s note: This report is compiled biweekly for members of the Portland Regional Chamber. It provides a breakdown of recent news around state policy, as well as a heads-up on coming events. The Bangor Daily News is publishing this report in cooperation with the PRC.
Holidays and high summer make for slow news weeks, so instead of using our regular format, this Update takes a quick look at some of the big issues facing us now and into the future. Hopefully the notes below will get you thinking about what’s best for you, your community and our state. We’ll get back to the headlines in our next issue at the end of the month.
What are the top issues facing the Portland region and the state? What’s important enough to think about on these beautiful summer days in Maine?
Well, below you’ll find five topics our members have identified as top issues that will have long-term, significant impact on the people, businesses and communities in our part of Maine, and beyond.
These issues weren’t chosen through a survey. Instead they’re some of the things our members have worked on, and asked about, and stayed involved in over time. Certainly these aren’t the only issues that deserve attention – I’d love to hear from members who have suggestions for what else they’d like to see discussed.
Remember, the comments and questions below are designed to get you thinking, and reacting. They are most definitely not intended as final answers, or the product of Chamber policy makers.
Instead, use them as beginning points for your own thinking on the issues, and if you’re in the mood share your thoughts with me. If I get enough member feedback I may do a follow-up on your reactions.
So without further introduction, and in no particular order, let’s take a look at where we are, and what’s ahead in the following policy areas:
(And PS – for more thought-provoking fun don’t miss your chance to respond to the Governor’s 2012 business survey linked below!)
1. Health care: Will federal health care reforms lower costs and lead toward a sustainable system in Maine, or will we find those outcomes through different policy choices? With the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court you might think things are all set, but actually we’re far from it. Maine hasn’t implemented key aspects of the ACA yet, so how will implementation play out in our state, and how will our long-term health care challenges be addressed?
At the state level major portions of the ACA remain unimplemented, particularly the establishment of a state-based health care exchange for purchasing federally subsidized insurance, and a decision on whether lawmakers will expand MaineCare (the state’s Medicaid program) as the ACA urges (but no longer requires), or reduce it.
Gov. LePage said last week he’s delaying ACA decisions until after the November elections ( BDN, PPH). This week Congresswoman Pingree urged federal officials to block Maine’s planned reductions in MaineCare eligibility ( PPH, MPBN), something the governor strenuously opposed ( PPH, BDN, MPBN).
In our region state-based health insurance market reforms passed in 2011 are already having a positive impact on many area businesses, but not all. More importantly our long-term health care trends remain unsustainable – health care and insurance costs are outrunning our ability to pay, and wellness lags behind.
Everyone needs to know what their options are for health care in 2014 and beyond. State lawmakers have important choices to make: Should Maine implement the federal ACA, or adopt another direction? Time grows short, and there’s much to decide.
2. Education: Will Maine’s public schools rise to compete at the highest level in order to survive? Market based competition in education has arrived in Maine, and our public schools will never be the same. How well public K-12 and higher education schools manage the new challenges they face will have a major impact on our region and the state.
At the state level in 2011 Maine became one of the last states to allow charter schools. Charters are now coming on line (along with virtual schools and other hybrids), and the crux of the issue is this: our public schools need to successfully compete to attract students. Similar challenges face public higher education systems as they face increasing competition for post-secondary market share.
In our region Mayor Brennan has already voiced concern about Baxter Academy’s impact on the Portland public schools’ enrollment levels. Other K-12 schools in our region face similar pressures. Since the competition genie won’t be going back in the bottle, our public schools need to become the best schools in Maine so they can successfully compete for students.
Only by winning this new competition can public K-12 schools and public higher education programs retain funding and market share – and much more importantly – only by becoming truly excellent can public education meet the social and economic demands we put on it.
And while we’re thinking about how our schools can do better, what can the business community do to help?
3. Taxes: How do we get state and local taxes to move lower – together? Who pays, and how much, and for what? That’s tax policy in a nutshell. Recently tax policies in Maine have been changing, but the changes aren’t all moving in the same direction. While state taxes are coming down, local taxes are increasing, and a shifting tax burden isn’t the reform anyone wants.
At the state level Maine’s personal income tax will be coming down next year, returning about $400 million dollars a year to taxpayers through a reduction in the personal income tax’s top marginal rate. It’s good news for taxpayers, but state budget writers with less revenue to work with may be tempted to make additional cuts to state spending directed toward local government. That can create a problem.
In our region a different story is playing out. Local property taxes are going up in all our communities, led by school budgets that were reduced when federal stimulus spending ended last year. Despite small state funding increases, local school budgets have eroded and this spring municipal voters chose to increase property taxes to cover the gap. Recent cuts to state funding for municipal revenue sharing and social services have put additional pressures on municipal budgets.
Not every community in Maine has raised property taxes – but every community has been forced to find savings in their spending plans. As 2013’s state and local budgets come forward the questions of who pays, and how much, and for what will be front and center again. To really lower our tax burden it won’t be enough to trade one tax reduction for another tax increase.
4. Regulations: Can continuing reform go beyond ‘doing it right’ and begin to address ‘doing it differently?’ Regulatory reform has been a bright spot in Maine over the last two years at both the state and local levels. More can be done, but some of it could prove controversial.
At the state level in 2011 LD 1 represented a bipartisan agreement that state government’s regulatory culture needed an overhaul. Since then the LePage administration has remained focused on transforming the state’s regulatory system from one that produced ‘friction’ to one that produces ‘results.’ And the Administration’s done that with a minimum of ‘roll-backs’ – most reforms have been in how rules and regulations are administered, not written.
In our region we’ve seen a similar emphasis in all eight of our region’s municipalities on removing road blocks and finding ways to facilitate growth. Ordinances have been re-written. Municipal staffs have worked more closely with applicants to find solutions. Individual communities are writing new future development plans that map out better regulatory practices.
Doing regulations right is underway, but will the next chapter of regulatory reform address ‘doing it differently?’ For instance, cost-benefit analysis has already won a foothold in Maine law. Regional growth increasingly demands regional regulatory structures that don’t exist yet. And the fundamentals of zoning are under review in several of our communities, opening up significant new land use opportunities.
Expect the reform conversation to continue, and if it moves in new directions toward ‘doing it differently,’ expect a little controversy along with some exciting new directions in the relationship between regulators and the public.
5. Demographics: Can our region and the state grow our population? One of the most profound challenges facing Maine is our demographic trend line. As a state we are old and lacking diversity. In most of the state our schools are on course to see fewer and fewer students each year. Without new population growth over the next ten years our prospects are in jeopardy.
At the state level in 2010 the State Planning Office reported past and projected population trends in Maine ( report text). Their work clearly demonstrated the accelerating loss of younger people throughout the state. This year Scott Moody has outlined the prospects for what he calls “ demographic winter” in Maine. He’s confirmed through U.S Census data that our population trends are still moving in the wrong direction.
In our region Andy Graham and other leaders of our creative economy want to see 10,000 more creative people move to Portland in the next 5 years ( Maine Magazine article). Mayor Brennan also has been talking about the need to expand the social and economic demographics in Portland in order to make our communities stronger. But we’ll need to do more to change the trends contained in the U.S. Census numbers noted above.
It seems clear that Maine and our region both need an extraordinary boost to in-migration if we’re going to overcome our low fertility rate and our continuing slide toward an insufficient work force and unsustainable social costs driven by a too-old population. Part of the solution will come from support for local efforts like those in Portland. But what else do we need to do to overcome our demographic challenge?
Where from here? These are all big questions, and if there were easy answers we’d have found them already. Instead we’ll be grappling with these issues into the foreseeable future.
Whatever you think about these challenges, share your thoughts with friends, neighbors and colleagues. If someone knocks on your door this year and asks for your vote, find out what they think about these issues, and others that are important to you.
Talk about these questions – and who knows – maybe the next big solution will start with you! If you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.
One last thing: The Governor would like you to take his survey on how to improve Maine’s business climate. Let’s make sure the survey results reflect our region’s views, along with the rest of the state! Click here to take the survey.
Feedback: So what do you think? We’d love to have your thoughts on anything you’ve read here, or on other topics that are important to you. The more you talk to us, the better we’ll represent your views. Send an email if you’d like to share your feedback with me – and thank you!
Chris Hall is senior vice president for government relations at the Portland Regional Chamber. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Partners for Progress Policy Updates are supported by contributions from Partners for Progress.