AUGUSTA, Maine — The six candidates who aspire to be Maine’s next U.S. senator have spent months laying out plans for what they would do if elected. But they can expect to arrive at a place where doing nothing has become the norm and where balancing the interests of the state and nation has become increasingly difficult.
Democrat Cynthia Dill, Republican Charlie Summers and independents Angus King, Danny Dalton, Andrew Ian Dodge and Steve Woods are competing to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Maine’s next senator needs to “find common ground and keep the best interests of the people of Maine — and all Americans — in the forefront,” former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, said Wednesday. He was echoed by Snowe, who said, “The country has been placed on hold on so many issues that contribute to whether or not we can change the course on jobs, the debt, the deficit and the quality of life so many Americans cherish.”
Budget and economy
Although “pork” has become a dirty word, states rely heavily on federal funding and the Senate plays a huge role in how that money is allocated.
Maine receives more money from the U.S. government than it pays into federal coffers. In August 2011, the Economist reported that between 1990 and 2009, federal spending in Maine outpaced its federal tax payments by $75.6 billion. The magazine places Maine behind only six states as the greatest recipient of federal largesse.
A Tax Foundation calculation based on 2005 numbers ranks Maine 13th — receiving $1.41 back for every dollar paid to the feds — in terms of return on payments to the federal government.
A new senator might find good reason to continue that flow of cash.
“If you invest federal dollars in early childhood, you help reduce the cost of K-12 education, of welfare, incarceration and crime because you have created a healthier, more self-sufficient individual,” said Laurie LaChance, president of Thomas College in Waterville and former state economist.
But immediate concerns about the debt and federal spending might preclude that type of investment.
“The biggest issues we will face are fiscal issues,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said Wednesday in a phone interview. “We have a $16 trillion debt that’s unsustainable. We have needs in everything,” from a crumbling infrastructure to security against terrorism including cyberattacks.
“We will need to revitalize our economy in a way that doesn’t worsen our debt,” Collins added. “It’s been three years since the Senate passed a budget, and that’s outrageous. We need to stop kicking the can down the road on issues that are so important to our families and our country’s prosperity.”
As a matter of economic security, Snowe says Maine’s new senator must contribute immediately to consensus-building that will break Congress’ political and procedural status quo, which inhibits businesses from planning for the future with any sense of security.
Scott Moody, president of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, agreed.
“The country cannot afford this unsustainable accumulation of debt because it is fueling another time bomb, which is the interest payments,” Moody wrote in an email.
But any talk of trimming either Social Security or Medicare to balance the budget or reduce debt upsets a large segment of the state’s population.
With a median age of 42.7 and 16.3 percent of its population age 65 or older, Maine has a rapidly aging population that’s comparatively more dependent on social programs. A third of Mainers older than 65 rely solely on Social Security as their income source, according to Lori Parham, Maine state director for AARP. The average annual benefit for Mainers receiving Social Security is $13,100, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.
The tension between taking action to reduce the national debt and ensuring that Maine’s most pressing transportation infrastructure needs are met will pose another challenge. All states receive more for transportation than they pay into federal coffers. An October 2012 Center for American Progress report notes that Maine received $1.46 in Federal Highway Administration funding for every $1 the state paid into the Highway Trust Fund in 2008, adjusted for the two-year lag in payment.
David Cole, who served as the state’s transportation commissioner from 2003 until 2011, noted the new senator soon will be “in the middle of a major debate on what will hopefully be a longer-term highway reauthorization bill to address the country’s aging infrastructure and economic competitiveness.” The recently enacted federal transportation bill, MAP-21, runs out at the end of September 2014. The estimated allocation of Federal Highway Administration funds under MAP-21 to Maine for fiscal year 2012 is $178.8 million, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But the ground rules will be different.
“For many years the federal Highway Trust Fund was a healthy and reliable source of funds to build our nation’s highways, bridges and transit systems, but the gas tax that supports it is no longer a sustainable model due to more fuel-efficient vehicles coming on line,” Cole said.
To highlight Maine’s situation, Cole cited “Connecting Maine,” a long-range transportation plan completed in 2010 that identifies about $3 billion in unmet need based on historic funding levels.
“We were very fortunate to have Sen. Snowe on the Senate Finance Committee, which is obviously a key position,” said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association. “We are also fortunate to have Sen. Collins on the Appropriations Committee, where already she has proven her mettle by getting the truck weights legislation passed in Senate. … It will be difficult for a new senator to have the clout of someone like Sen. Snowe since she was there for so long, but without people in key positions, Maine will be at a big disadvantage.”
Energy and environment
The nation’s energy policy has prompted significant debate in this year’s U.S. Senate campaigns, but opinions in Maine differ on where those policies should focus.
“What America and Maine thrive on is abundant and affordable energy,” said Jamie Py of the Maine Energy Marketers Association. “We need to seriously enhance North American supply of oil, gas and other sources of energy, especially if we have an abundance of oil, gas and coal. We can look at renewables, but in the short term we need to ensure we have an adequate supply.”
Beth Nagusky, Maine director of Environment Northeast, argues that federal energy policy must acknowledge and account for climate change.
“The ski industry, maple syrup, forestry, fishing and farming all stand to be impacted,” she said. “It would be a disservice to the state if Maine’s next senator did not take on global warming.”
“Energy has long been a disadvantage to Maine,” said LaChance. “Greater federal support for conservation and independence could help minimize the disadvantage Maine has on energy. It would foster business growth and add security to families.”
Much of the communication about state and national education reform initiatives takes place between the Maine Department of Education and federal officials. However, with Maine’s fiscal year 2012 allocation of federal funds for elementary and secondary student programs estimated at more than $147 million, the stakes make it imperative that Maine’s next senator be a strong advocate for Maine schools, educators say.
Action on the federal level sets the stage for what happens in the state, LaChance said.
“We have to focus on regaining the national and state dominance in education,” she said. “The way the world economy is evolving requires ever-increasing levels of education if we are going to compete. Education across the entire spectrum of life is the most important thing we can do.”
The latest report on Maine schools’ compliance with federal No Child Left Behind standards, released this week, shows that only 35 percent of Maine schools met the federal targets. That adds importance to the Maine Department of Education’s effort to gain flexibility from those standards with a waiver request submitted in September.
“I believe that the next senator from Maine needs to understand the importance of local control of education in Maine,” said Connie Brown, superintendent of the Augusta School Department. She also would like to see Maine’s next senator ensure the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, become more flexible with testing.
“The current obsession with standardized testing needs to be tempered with allowing children to be curious, to explore and to take their time to learn,” Brown said.
What to expect
Collins said committee assignments will be important for her new colleague because that’s where much of the Senate’s work takes place. Collins and Snowe agreed that continuing the close collaboration on committee assignments they have enjoyed during the past 14 years will be essential.
“The Senate is a small place,” Collins said. “Having good relations with people on both sides of the aisle makes you a good senator.”
Asked to offer a single piece of wisdom acquired during their years in the Senate, Collins and Snowe echoed Mitchell’s advice to “find common ground and keep the best interests of the people of Maine — and all Americans — in the forefront.”
“It’s a time in America that requires urgent action and tangible solutions,” Snowe said, reiterating that the first step toward those tangible solutions will be to break through the “polarization and partisanship” that reflect the “strong divisions within the institution” of the Senate.
When asked Wednesday to compare that challenge to attaining peace in Northern Ireland, former Sen. Mitchell smiled, shook his head and walked away.