AUGUSTA, Maine — As he enters his final year in office, Gov. John Baldacci said his top priorities will be continuing to streamline the size of state government amid the recession and positioning Maine to be a national leader on energy issues.
The Baldacci administration’s plan for closing an additional $438 million budget shortfall will likely be the dominant issue before lawmakers when they return to Augusta for a shorter legislative session beginning Wednesday.
The Democratic governor said his supplemental budget continues the focus on consolidating state programs and identifying efficiencies without raising taxes. Two agencies that account for roughly 80 percent of state spending — the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services — would absorb the largest share of the budget cuts under the administration’s proposal.
“We have had a lot of changes [in government], a lot of restructuring and consolidation efforts both locally and statewide, and that really needs to continue,” Baldacci said in an interview. “Over the last seven years, we have really wrestled the budget down so that the rate of growth of the budget is the lowest it has been since World War II.”
Baldacci pointed out that the size of the state work force has shrunk more than 8 percent — or by about 1,000 employees — since he entered office in 2003 but that additional efficiencies are possible.
But while some have said the recent budget gap calls for elimination of entire programs, and a very small minority has called for tax increases, Baldacci said he believes there still exists “administrative waste” that can be eliminated first.
The administration’s proposed budget recommends further consolidations in the Department of Education and another attempt at merging several of the state’s natural resources departments — or at least combining similar programs within the agencies. The Baldacci administration has talked for years about consolidating several of the natural resources agencies but always ran into strong opposition from interest groups served by the departments.
“If we can reduce the amount of commissioners, deputy commissioners, bureau directors and administrative personnel, and keep those resources on the front lines, that’s the direction Maine needs to head in,” he said.
Looking beyond the legislative session, Baldacci said another priority will be working to reduce Mainers’ dependence on foreign oil, both for economic and national security reasons. Another focus will be growing the state’s alternative energy industry, he said.
Already New England’s largest producer of wind power from land-based wind farms, Maine is among the states aggressively courting the Obama administration for federal dollars to build the nation’s first offshore, deepwater wind turbines.
The University of Maine recently received $5 million in federal money for development of offshore, deepwater wind technology as well as $8 million to lead a research consortium on wind power technology.
Baldacci reiterated his belief that given the state’s history of shipbuilding and heavy manufacturing, Maine could become a top producer of the turbines, blades, machinery and other components that go into wind farms, he said.
“We’re going to have the work force, we are going to have the expertise, and we are going to be the go-to place for this type of development,” the governor said. “And frankly, I think it’s a huge opportunity both to get off of foreign oil and all of its implications overseas for national security but also to help jump-start our eco-nomic development.”
Asked about his plans after leaving office next January, Baldacci said he hopes to do some teaching — potentially at the University of Maine — but that he also plans to stay involved in energy issues, perhaps in an advisory capacity.
“It’s one [issue] that I am going to continue to be involved in. I feel very passionate about this,” he said.