As another new year starts — this one with a new governor and Legislature — Maine faces many familiar problems and opportunities. Our stagnant population and its impact on the state’s economy, for example, has been the topic of many reports, conferences and, yes, editorials. Yet, little progress has been made and growing a skilled workforce remains a top priority.
There are, of course, many other pressing issues that demand our collective attention — the opioid epidemic, the impact of climate change, health care costs and poverty, to name a few. But, perhaps this is part of the problem. By trying to fix so many things at once, policymakers and pundits alike have lost crucial focus.
This year, the Bangor Daily News opinion pages will focus primarily on four topics. Our hope is that by engaging in meaningful, in-depth conversations with readers, experts and elected officials from across Maine, we will not only dive into some of the most pressing issues facing our state, but also bring attention to potential solutions.
These issues are the yardstick we will use to measure the performance of the Mills administration, Legislature and others engaged in these issues.
We have chosen three areas: workforce development, referendum reform, and the local costs and challenges of rural living.
We want you to pick the fourth. Let us know what you are most concerned about. Where should Maine focus its attention? What innovative solutions are being ignored? Tell us here.
We don’t have all the answers — nobody does — but together we can find them.
Workforce and population growth
The Maine Department of Labor recently projected that the state would add fewer than 100 net new jobs by 2026. This is the most dire warning yet that we do not have enough skilled workers for the kinds of jobs we want to attract. To avoid this prediction, Maine must attract new workers, convince more of our young people to stay in the state and better train the working-age people who are already here. This does not mean college degrees for everyone, but it does mean ensuring that job training and education meet the demands of companies that are already here and growing, as well as the industries that Maine wants to attract.
There have been bipartisan and large-scale efforts to reverse this trend for decades — loan forgiveness programs, plans to dramatically increase the number of Mainers with college degrees. Yet, the trend persists. Much smaller efforts, such as Live + Work Maine, Our Katahdin, demonstrate the potential of what can be done on a local level. How can these efforts grow and be emulated?
Thousands of Mainers are unemployed or underemployed because they are disabled, dealing with substance abuse disorder or are beyond what we think of as working-age. How can these Mainers be brought into the workforce? Who is missing from the workforce?
Maine has seen a lot of referendum questions in recent years, in part because were are a small state with a relatively cheap media market. National groups can try out ideas, or get them passed to set a national standard, will little investment of time and money. This does not benefit Maine people.
Currently, referendums — not including bond questions — are too easy to get on the ballot, and too crude a tool for meaningful legislation and significant policy change. Citizens initiatives can offer a critical voice to the people, but our existing process needs adjustment.
Would requiring the same number of signatures from each congressional district or a percentage from each county help? Should the required number of signatures to get a question on the ballot be raised? Should the constitutionality of a question be determined before it goes on the ballot? Some of the answers are easy, some more complicated, but we hope the Legislature will take a close look. We strongly support truth in disclosure on questions — such as how much tax changes or mandated funding will really cost Maine taxpayers.
The curse of ruralness
Let’s face it, there is a high cost to living in a big state with a dispersed population. If you believe, as we do, that all Maine children deserve a high-quality public education and that vital infrastructure, such as broadband and well-maintained roads, is essential, sharing the cost burden is a necessity.
In the past decade, lawmakers — with a big push from Gov. Paul LePage — lowered state taxes and reduced funding for some vital state programs. As a result, local taxpayers have paid more, through their property taxes, to maintain schools and local social service programs.
Without question, these are not the only big issues facing Maine as we start 2019. But by focusing on a select few, and by listening to you, we hope to help in the move toward solutions. Be sure to send your thoughts on a fourth topic as well.