EDITORIALS

Maine’s future, if Eliot Cutler were governor

Posted Sept. 18, 2013, at 11:49 a.m.
Eliot Cutler
Eliot Cutler

Eliot Cutler has explained himself. The independent candidate for governor released his book Wednesday morning, “A State of Opportunity: A Plan to Build a Healthier, Smarter, Stronger, Younger and More Prosperous Maine,” which details his positions on education, government, health care, the economy, election reform and how to draw young people to the state.

It is a reasoned account that sets him apart from the other major candidates — Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Republican Gov. Paul LePage — as a thinker and a technocrat. As he trails the others in polling, Cutler must reintroduce himself to voters. As an independent who has never held elected office, he must be clear about where he stands on major issues. The book launches the conversation and sets up his campaign.

By and large we agree with his assessment of and ideas for the state, particularly his call for a plan policymakers can use to direct major decisions about Maine’s future. Without a roadmap of sorts, he writes, the state becomes subject to divisive political whims. Maine has stood still, especially over the last decade, as costs in health care and education increased, young people continued to leave, incomes stagnated, infrastructure costs grew and educational attainment lagged relative to future demands.

The “how” is the difficult part. How can the government help, not hinder, economic progress? Cutler correctly points out that the state has fallen behind because of a lack of vision and strategic action. “Too many of our current challenges are the consequence of bad choices and the fruit of failed policies,” he writes.

His education reform ideas are the most specific and are based on a desire to cut costs and boost educational attainment.

He rightfully calls for expanding early childhood education, doing more to incentivize good teachers, supporting innovative charter schools, extending the school year and examining how Maine funds public education. He proposes merging the university and community college systems to save money and return that money to actual education needs — a good thought but difficult reality. He suggests examining an arrangement to allow Maine high school graduates to attend Maine colleges and universities tuition-free if they remain in state afterward to live and work.

Cutler points out that ordering school district consolidation didn’t work. Instead, he writes, schools should have incentives to choose how to reimagine themselves. We’d encourage the development of a competitive grant program that rewards schools for working with others within their region to improve academic outcomes. By collaborating on how to grow student success — keeping the focus on what’s best for students — they may naturally find more ways to combine services.

When it comes to health care, Cutler writes again about the need for a statewide plan. He supports the basics: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and rewarding physicians for positive outcomes instead of the quantity of procedures they perform. He supports the creation of a Maine-run health exchange under Obamacare. We welcome specific ideas about how to find efficiencies within MaineCare.

On the issue of government, Cutler wants a “clean-up commission” to review state programs and agencies and recommend changes to the Legislature. He also wants a small regulatory office to seek out and eliminate ineffective rules and regulations. In the same vein, he calls for a review of tax breaks, credits and exemptions — which is ongoing as a provision of the state’s new, two-year budget.

State government must reduce its reliance on the property tax, he writes. The wealthiest Mainers no longer have their wealth concentrated heavily in property but in stocks, bonds and other assets, which are not taxed at the same level. It’s not fair, he correctly points out, that poorer Maine residents pay a greater percentage of their income in property tax. He calls for broadening the sales tax to cover a wider range of goods and services — attempted several times in the past decade. We’d like to hear more of his thoughts on how to even out the tax contributions of the wealthy and how he’d push his plans through the Legislature.

Tackling the economy is Cutler’s biggest challenge. Yes, Maine can build on its strengths of wind, ports, natural splendor, farms and fisheries. It can, as he writes, once again become the breadbasket of the northeastern U.S. We should always be looking for ways to build up tourism, invigorate the creative economy and turn “Maine” into a brand that sells products — as, for example, “France” sells wine. Maine should do more to develop new composite fuels and materials and adapt manufacturing to fit current demands.

Yet this is the start of the conversation. The challenges of growing rural and urban economies are great, and Maine will need its best thinkers working together to develop specific goals — such as an increase in gross domestic product per capita — and then a means to get there.

We’re glad Cutler is talking about ways to move Maine forward instead of reverting to meaningless rhetoric, as too often happens in major races. Writing a 104-page book with many ideas of substance is a daunting task, as it will be used, if he wins, as a measurement of his successes and failures. It opens him up to criticism. But it also starts what we hope will be a continued educated discussion.

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