Annual report shows more liabilities than assets for Maine

Posted March 05, 2013, at 8 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has more cause for concern than optimism, according to the Maine Economic Growth Council’s 19th annual “Measures of Growth in Focus” report, which was released Tuesday.

Among the red-flag issues for 2013 are:

• The state’s spending on research and development.

Maine Economic Growth Council co-chairman Tim Hussey said R&D spending should constitute about 3 percent of a state’s gross domestic product. Maine’s commitment of about $488 million in 2010 was about 1 percent of the gross domestic product, ranking Maine 45th in the United States. Maine’s R&D investments are about half the national average and a quarter of the New England average, according to the report. Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a $20 million general obligation bond in May 2012 exacerbates the problem, the report states.

• The number of Mainers who have high-speed Internet.

Maine actually improved in this category from 2010 to 2011, but remains well below U.S. and New England averages. About 559 per 1,000 Maine residents had high-speed Internet in 2011, compared to 662 and 697 per 1,000 residents in the U.S and New England, respectively.

• Fourth-grade reading scores.

Maine’s scores have been on a slow decline since at least 1992, according to scores on a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Regardless, Maine stayed above the national average until 2011, when the rest of the country on average caught up with Maine at 32 percent proficiency.

• The percentage of children and adults who live in poverty.

Maine’s 13.3 percent poverty rate in 2011, according to a three-year rolling average, has remained somewhere between the U.S. and New England averages since 1995. According to the report, the numbers are even more troubling for youths. About 24 percent of children younger than age 5 and 19 percent of children younger than age 18 are living in poverty. “In light of the most recent recession, the issue of poverty in Maine will remain a concern for the foreseeable future,” reads the report.

• Health wellness and prevention measures.

Since 1995, the increase of Mainers who are overweight or obese has exceeded the national average increase. In 2011, approximately 64 percent of Mainers were either overweight (37.2 percent) or obese (27.8 percent), which was close to the national average. The report estimates that obesity costs the health care system in Maine $767 million annually, plus another $2 billion in lost productivity.

“This is a major drag on all of our economy and it’s preventable,” said Hussey. “It’s frightening.”

There was also some good news in the form of gold stars within the report, but there were only two of them:

• Eighth-grade math scores.

The 2011 NAEP scores showed that 39 percent of students are proficient in eighth-grade math. That’s six percentage points above the national average and a considerable jump from the 25 percent proficiency in 2012. The Maine Development Foundation aims for proficiency to increase to at least 50 percent by 2015.

• Water quality.

Maine is well above U.S. and New England averages for the percentage of water bodies that are classified as “good” by the Environmental Protection Agency. About 95 percent of Maine’s rivers and streams and more than 85 percent of its lake and pond acreage received one of the top two water cleanliness classifications by the EPA. Nationally, less than 55 percent of rivers and streams and less than 48 percent of lakes and ponds earned those marks.

The report also addressed progress, or lack of it, on a range of other issues that fell somewhere between a red flag and gold star. They included numerous measures of the economy, health of communities and environmental factors.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the report painted a troubling picture of the Pine Tree State.

“The economy is coming back in the U.S. and New England, but not here in Maine,” he said. “We need to build on our successes and work together to meet our challenges.”

Hussey said the the report is about putting numbers to Maine’s strengths and weaknesses so policy discussions can be based on facts instead of anecdotes.

“What gets measured gets done,” he said. “That’s why we’re calling these 26 indicators to your attention. Most of these are not going to be news to anyone who knows Maine. These issues need attention.”

Rather than lamenting the state’s shortcomings, a group of legislators says it hopes to use the annual analysis of conditions affecting Maine’s economy to craft legislation that will result in a better report next year.

Led by Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, and Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, the roughly 30-person “Measures of Growth Caucus” wants to make sure information in the report finds its way into policy discussions and, better yet, into policy while it’s still under development.

“The idea is to take this document and use it in our everyday work,” Hayes said following Tuesday’s press conference at which the report was released. “When we as legislators lead with ideology in our arguments, we tend to push people away. When we start with data, we bring people together.”

The report, which for the past 19 years has been funded by state government — it received $53,000 last year — is compiled by the Maine Development Foundation. It highlights and grades 26 topics ranging from education to water and air quality to poverty levels. Subject areas receive a gold star if Maine is making progress or a red flag if there are major problems.

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