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House Speaker’s event seeks to address demographic winter

Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves, D-North Berwick

Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves, D-North Berwick

Maine has entered a period of demographic crisis. It’s real. It’s here. And we have no idea what to do about it.

Such was the theme of a round table discussion that took place between health care professionals, lawmakers, and non-profit and private sector leaders from around the state who gathered at the Augusta Civic Center on Tuesday morning.

The discussion, the first of four, was convened by Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick) and was sponsored by the Maine Council on Aging and the John T. Gorman Foundation.

[RELATED: The fiscal costs of Maine's "Demographic Winter"]

“This is not a short-term conversation, this is a long-term conversation,” said Eves. “We’re going to develop a vision to address a crisis that is not coming – it’s here,” he said.

Charles S. Colgan, an economist with the Muskie School of Public Service, began the presentation by painting an economic and demographic portrait of the state of Maine. “No society has ever gone through what we’re about to go through. No society has faced the kind of problems we’re about to face,” he said.

That problem, he said, is the dual issue of an aging population and stagnant immigration. “The reason we’re the oldest state in the nation is because we’re somewhat disproportionately older, but more so because we’re wildly disproportionately not young… Our imbalance, from an economic point of view, combines the twin issues of the older population coming in and the younger population going out. The key factor in all of this is immigration.”

Colgan stressed to discussion participants that overcoming the demographic crisis means not simply retaining Maine’s young people, but attracting young people to the state. “We could keep every kid born between 1980 and now prisoner – put an ankle bracelet on them that went off if they tried to cross the Piscataqua Bridge – and it would still not be enough,” Colgan darkly joked. “We’ve got to get more people to Maine.”

[RELATED: Moody on Economics: "Demographic Winter" tightens grip on Maine's economy...]

While Colgan stopped short of saying state government has contributed to the problem, through over taxation and over regulation, he did comment on housing regulations and the building permit process.

“We make it very difficult to build multi-family housing,” he said. According to Colgan, building a three-bedroom house requires the same regulatory and permitting process as building a three hundred unit housing complex.

As far as solutions go, Colgan ended by recommending research and development into innovative services. “That’s where we really have an opportunity to be a leader,” he said.

In his closing remarks, Colgan offered what he admitted was a pipedream: A partnership between Maine business leaders and Google aimed at developing self-driving cars that can safely navigate the snowy, icy roads of northern climates.

Entirely absent from Tuesday’s conversation about Maine’s demographic winter was any discussion of how excessive taxation and state overspending contributed to the problem, or how serious tax reform and limited government might play a role in the solution.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) underscored this fact in a written statement. Said Fredette, “If we want to reverse the trend of the past few decades, then maybe we should start listening to new economists. How can you continually advocate higher taxes and then wonder why people aren’t moving to your state?”

Fredette was hinting at Colgan’s history of producing economic research, sometimes for the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, that advocates higher taxes and more entitlement programs as the solution to Maine’s economic and demographic problems.

Rather than continue Maine’s tradition of using government to address our problems, Fredette said that Maine should examine what’s working in other states, where lower taxes and fiscal responsibility are attracting labor and growing the economy.

“Our current situation is no accident,” he said. “It’s a direct result of 35 years of Democratic legislating. With fresh ideas, Maine’s best days can be ahead of us.”

S.E. Robinson
MaineWire Reporter

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