One of my primary responsibilities as Maine’s state treasurer is to make sure bonds authorized by voters are sold efficiently in the marketplace to provide funding for capital projects statewide. It is important to look back at past bond issues to see whether the money we borrow as a state is meeting its intended purpose. As I travel around Maine, I make it a point to seek out projects and programs that were built with the millions of dollars we collectively agree to borrow to invest in our state.
In 2010, Maine voters approved a $5 million bond to create a dental school and improve community dental clinics, and that was sold the following year. The University of New England won the bid to build the community-based teaching dental clinic called for in the measure, and work soon began to create a College of Dental Medicine in Portland — the only dental school in northern New England.
Three years after the vote, in 2013, the first class was admitted, even before the clinical classrooms had been built. These brave individuals had faith that the university would follow through and provide them with a first-class educational experience.
Four years later and seven years after the bond was approved, there are 62 newly minted dentists trained here in Maine, at least 11 of whom plan to stay here and practice. Better still, there will be a new class of dental graduates each year for the foreseeable future.
We are growing our own and filling a desperate need. And just in time. A 2014 report from the Maine Department of Labor on health occupations highlighted the fact that Maine’s dentists tend to be older than the national average and that a large number of them are expected to retire over the next 10 to 20 years.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with this first group of dentists to graduate from the University of New England program. I wanted to see how our investment is paying off and what attracted these young men and women to the university’s dental college in the first place.
Some were lifelong Mainers who simply want to stay here. Others had a positive undergraduate experience at the University of New England and a strong desire to help shape its new dental program. Many spoke about the stress relief and quality of life provided by Maine’s abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, close by and inexpensive.
Others cited the fourth-year rotation program that provides more than double the clinical experience of other dental schools. And all of them shared a passion for being pioneers in this innovative new dental school.
Unfortunately, some of this inaugural class will soon be leaving Maine to practice dentistry. As you might expect, there were a few who cited our harsh winters, but others spoke of their large student loan debts and the ability to earn more money elsewhere. Unfortunately but predictably, several cited our new 3 percent surcharge on annual income over $200,000 as a strong deterrent to staying in Maine to build a practice.
So, are we getting our money’s worth from this bond issue voters approved seven years ago? After touring the University of New England’s College of Dental Medicine and meeting the members of its first graduating class, my answer is a resounding yes.
This has been money well spent and an investment in our state that will provide a return for years to come.
Terry Hayes of Buckfield is the Maine state treasurer. She is an independent who was elected by Republican and Democratic members of the Legislature.