Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that Republican Gov. Paul LePage knows how to deliver a speech with feeling. Instead, let’s examine the overall policy direction he laid out in his State of the State address on Tuesday night. We looked for vision, for a new way of thinking about Maine’s toughest issues — because a State of the State should explain a sense of a state’s direction — and we found little to encourage us.
Let’s think broadly about the state of education and the state of the economy. Schools are stretched. The economy has been stagnant for years. So what have Maine’s leaders done? Democratic Gov. John Baldacci focused on reorganizing existing structures, and LePage aims to cut their funding. Regardless of good intentions, neither approach has changed Maine’s trajectory for the better.
That’s because the framework itself has to change. Baldacci recognized the problem of the growing cost of schools and their declining enrollment, so he tried to consolidate district offices. LePage recognizes the problem, too, and has often, including in Tuesday’s speech, taken easy shots at district administrators’ pay. The biggest cost for state and local governments is education. But if Maine leaders want to actually reduce education costs, they can’t tweak operations. They have to change the mode of delivery. They have to re-envision education.
Many districts devoted much time and energy to consolidation, but will they see lasting cost efficiencies? LePage wants students to have more choice about the schools they attend — which may benefit certain students — but how do more charter schools and vocational options address the underlying problem of too many school buildings for the number of students? Maine’s youth population decreased nearly 10 percent in the last decade, and that the decline is likely to continue for at least the next two decades. The state must adapt. It could, for example, rely much more on Web-based content and instruction. It could redefine “school” for rural communities, so school buildings become multi-use places and actual community hubs.
Then there’s the economy. LePage was correct in his State of the State that improving Maine’s economy takes “bold action.” And Baldacci in his 2010 address said, “It’s hard to change structures. But we must.” But what has changed? Baldacci merged county and state corrections systems and state agencies. LePage has eliminated some of the shortfall in Maine’s pension system, has a plan to repay hospitals the debt they are owed and streamlined some of the permitting process for businesses under LD 1. But do steps like these constitute big ideas for reform?
LePage said in his speech that farming, fishing and forestry continue to be top priorities, and, while they will and should play a major role in the state’s economy, they must re-imagine themselves if they want to employ the number of people they once did — by producing new, value-added products, finding new markets and advancing related technology, such as for biofuel. Maine shouldn’t leave its goods-producing industries behind, but it should not cling to them; it should rethink them.
Also, what is Maine doing to invest in its service- and knowledge-based economy, which is growing? What about research and development? How can it, for example, use the fast-growing need for home care workers to its advantage — to expand related health care technologies and become a model for other states?
We’re not talking about quick fixes or easy answers. Maine’s problems are complex. But that’s why leaders need to think differently. Maine doesn’t need a new ranking system for its schools, which LePage proposed in his speech. Maine doesn’t get to applaud a tax cut when the Legislature has no plan to pay for it and faces passing off the cost to local residents in the form of higher property taxes. Maine needs leaders with strategic vision. This is not a question of party or politics but of leadership and the ability to imagine new ways to bring greater prosperity to Maine people.