AUGUSTA, Maine — The leader of the Maine National Guard told the Maine House and Senate on Tuesday that though the Pentagon has plans to reduce the number of military reservists nationally, the big challenge in Maine in the coming years will be recruiting and retaining enough personnel.
Brig. Gen. Douglas Farnham, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said the problem is twofold: The pool of qualified young people is shrinking, and Maine is at a disadvantage compared with other New England states in terms of recruitment.
Meanwhile, deployments of Maine personnel reached an all-time high in 2015 and will surpass that threshold this year, said Farnham. The future of the Guard will depend on more volunteers.
“If we want to gain new missions, we have to have success recruiting, but it is getting more difficult,” said Farnham. “A recent study shows 70 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible for military service due to education, police records, drug use, physical standards and obesity.”
Between 1995 and 2008, according to Farnham, the percentage of people disqualified from military service because of obesity increased from 12 percent to 21 percent.
“Kids are making poor choices,” said Farnham. “Now we’re left with 30 percent eligible, and 97 percent of those choose not to serve in the military. That’s the math that gets you to 1 percent of the population who are wearing the uniform.”
Farnham said that while the prestige of military service remains a core driver, Maine could do better with recruitment by implementing a bill that would allow National Guard members to go to state community or university system colleges for free.
“The tuition waiver for our airmen and soldiers is critical to our recruiting efforts,” said Farnham. “Maine is the only New England state that does not provide that assistance.”
Lawmakers are trying to change that. LD 1343, which received unanimous support last year but is stuck waiting for funding, would waive tuition for active members of the Maine National Guard. It has a $500,000 fiscal note, but proponents say the University of Maine system has found a way to fund the initiative without impacting the General Fund.
However, as long as the fiscal note is attached without a designated funding source, the bill hangs in limbo.
Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, one of the bill’s chief supporters, said the fiscal note is a problem for the bill and should be stripped.
“We worked with the university system,” said Farrin. “The costs are still being recognized, but the fiscal note could be taken off. … I’m afraid they’re going to try to wrap this up with other bills. It should stand alone with no fiscal note.”
A motion to move the bill last week failed on a party-line 6-6 committee vote, with Democrats opposed.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, said Democrats support the bill as much as Republicans do but that bills with fiscal notes to be addressed will be considered as a group near the end of the session, as they traditionally are.
“We all support this bill, and we all want to see it move through the Appropriations Committee,” said Rotundo. “We’re just treating the bill as we treat other bills on the Appropriations table. We take them up all at once.”
Rotundo said she and other lawmakers are looking for a permanent funding source — not just first-year funding — so Guard members don’t enlist in the program and then have it threatened if sustained funding can’t be found.
“That will actually strengthen the opportunity for National Guardsmen to continue to have this benefit into the future,” said Rotundo. “The university system has come up with a source of funding for it for this year, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be an ongoing cost in future years.”
Rotundo said it’s important to weigh all the bills with fiscal notes at once for transparency reasons.
“Everyone has bills that they want funding for,” said Rotundo. “This bill will come off the table, but I hope when it does it will be stronger because we will have found a source of funding that will fund it not only next year, but into the future.”
There is currently no money available for the bills with unaddressed fiscal notes, even though there is a projected $72 million surplus in the state budget this year. Gov. Paul Page has submitted legislation to move the entire surplus into the state’s rainy day fund, even though there are several bills — including some that he has proposed — that need funding if they are to take effect.