February 16, 2019
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Back to the future: Mills’ plan for a Maine innovation office really began 50 years ago

BDN | BDN
BDN | BDN
Gov. Kenneth Curtis speaks in this file photo. He served as the 68th governor of Maine starting in 1967.

Good morning from Augusta. Gov. Janet Mills will lay out a vision for a new Office of Innovation and the Future on Thursday in preparation for what would effectively be the second rebrand of a long-standing part of state government: the former State Planning Office.

It was founded by former Gov. Ken Curtis in 1968 and ended largely as a cost-saving measure in 2012 under Mills’ predecessor, Gov. Paul LePage, who transformed it into an Office of Policy and Management that was smaller and less visible than it had been in the past.

The loss of the State Planning Office was mostly bemoaned in wonkish circles and there has been no sustained political push to bring it back since then, but it looks as if Mills wants to remake the office in its original image with a future-focused name.

Curtis originally founded the State Planning Office to look at Maine’s future. The creation of the office was a key moment in Maine’s economic development history. Curtis, a Democrat, created it with the Legislature in 1968 to coordinate between government agencies on long-term issues, including the economy, energy and conservation. While it was part of the executive branch, it aided the governor, the Legislature and local governments.

Future governors mostly held it to that all-purpose mission. Its early reports looked at issues ranging from the organization of state government, the oyster population, challenges of municipal planning along Maine’s coast and building low-cost housing.

The office was especially visible during the administration of former Gov. Angus King under director Evan Richert, who was only the second planner to lead the office when he was picked in 1995. Reports from his tenure included ones largely blaming increased municipal spending on sprawl, looking at the feasibility of an east-west highway and on attracting retirees to Maine.

By the time LePage took over in 2011, the office had a staff of about 40 people. Most of those positions were moved to other agencies — including a new energy office — and some were eliminated. The former governor’s more centralized Office of Policy and Management, which was enshrined with a mandate to find savings in government, straightforwardly bolstered LePage’s policy cases most of the time.

One of its last reports was a flawed one on public land in Maine and the office was inactive by May 2018 after the abrupt resignation of its last director.

Mills will need to win approval for her changes, but her vision looks similar to the original one. The Democratic governor will lay out plans for the new Office of Innovation and Future at 11 a.m. today at a new conference in her office. It’s only the beginning of a transition to the new office and she’ll need to win legislative approval for changes like LePage did.

In her inaugural address, Mills quoted the late author Kurt Vonnegut to say, “Every government should have a department of the future.” She said the new office will “dive into major policy challenges, foster collaboration and propose concrete, workable solutions.”

That’s pretty much like the future office of the past. Here’s your soundtrack.


Senate shutdown maneuvers

Maine’s U.S. senators continue to seek ways to be relevant during the longest partial federal government shutdown in history. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins co-authored a bill signed into law Wednesday that guarantees back pay for federal workers who haven’t been paid since the government shut down in late December. The Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which was authored by Collins and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, was co-sponsored by more than 40 senators, including King, the former independent governor who caucuses with Senate Democrats.

It ensures that the roughly 380,000 furloughed workers and 420,000 federal employees working without pay will be compensated once the shutdown ends, though it has to end for them to get their money. The bill is a “good first step in providing relief” for those workers, Collins tweeted Wednesday.

King also took to social media on Wednesday with a video designed to highlight the plight of furloughed or unpaid federal workers and advocate for an end to the shutdown. On Wednesday, he also joined other senators to introduce legislation designed to secure back pay for the federal contractor employees who continue to go without pay during the shutdown.

Unfortunately, none of these actions seemed to move President Donald Trump or congressional leaders closer to a budget deal or workaround to end the shutdown, making their immediate impact largely symbolic.


Today in A-town

The Senate and House of Representatives will convene this morning, and committee meetings are to follow. Both legislative bodies are still in their early, perfunctory stages of business, which today includes introduction of Mills’ Cabinet nominees, who will be interviewed by committees in the coming weeks, and the introduction of 65 bills. The list of bills can be accessed here. Find the full schedule and audio links for each meeting here.


Reading list

— Repercussions of the partial federal shutdown continue to be felt in Maine. Maine Public reports that contractors and state transportation officials have begun to fret that a prolonged shutdown will interrupt funding for planned projects during the state’s short good-weather construction season. Meanwhile, volunteers have stepped in to plow and groom trails at Acadia National Park.

— Leaders of Maine’s second largest public university want to change its name again. Unveiled Wednesday, the proposal to change the name of the University of Southern Maine to the University of Maine at Portland must be approved by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees in the spring or summer of this year and approved by the Legislature before it can be implemented. Glenn Cummings, president of the university, said research shows significantly more out-of-state guidance counselors will recommend it to students and more high school graduates will consider enrolling.

— Craft beer continues to help fuel Maine’s economy. Breweries and related activities by their suppliers and employees contributed a total of $260.4 million to the Maine economy in 2017, the latest year for which data are available. That’s up from $225 million in 2016, according to a report released Wednesday by the Maine Brewers’ Guild and the University of Maine School of Economics.


Put it in writing

The suggestion from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, that the president simply send Congress his State of the Union address in writing conjures memories of when LePage did just that with his State of the State speech in 2016.

Essentially, the Republican did not want to be in the same room with legislators who had recently tried to impeach him. He made 12 references to “socialism” and mostly doubled down on old talking points.

A written annual address from the chief executive makes for bad television, but sacrificing televised pomp and circumstance to honor the written word and pump new life into the lost art of letter-writing seems like a good cause. For at least one year, we could give up the chance to watch one side of the room applaud while the other side squirms.

The U.S. Postal Service is still working, so Trump could just mail it to all of us too. It would be egalitarian and would not irk the aunties by interrupting “The Masked Singer” or whatever version of “NCIS” or “Law and Order” that would be preempted.

We urge the president to find a way to end the shutdown, then take credit for it in a handwritten address to Congress and the American people. Here is his soundtrack. And here is your shutdown soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, aacquisto@bangordailynews.com, and rlong@bangordailynews.com.



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