Commentary

The Brookings Institution and Paul LePage

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In October 2006, The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program published “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places.”  It was impressively produced with many fine pictures of trees, lobster traps, potatoes, Mainers at work and Mainers looking rustic.  It was nicely laid out with many instructive graphs and charts.  Governor Baldacci described it as a “blueprint for Maine’s future.”  Copies were placed in the hands of every sitting legislator.

Did they all read it?  Not a chance.  Did anyone read it?  The evidence is uncertain.  There’s a phrase found in German naval communiques which has always appealed to me because of its emphatic and conclusive tone: “versenkt spurlos” – sunk without a trace.  Seems to apply here.  The “blueprint,” after its initial ballyhooing, rarely pops up in the current political debates.  I’ve seen only one mention of the thing in Maine’s media since it first appeared.  With its tenth anniversary approaching its time for a review.

Turn to the section entitled “The Strategy.”  Trim Government to Invest in Maine’s Economy and Finance Tax Reform” on pages 105-115.  There you will read that “Maine is at least as much ‘Administrationland’ as ‘Vacationland’ given the large numbers of state and school-district administrative personnel that seem to populate the state’s expensive bureaucracies.”  The governor’s analysis of the burden of ‘Administrationland’ follows the strategy’s analysis almost exactly.  Doesn’t this sound a bit LePagian: “…the accumulation over time of redundant managerial layers, inefficient institutional structures, or excessive numbers of administrators dedicated to routine tasks like tax collection, “back-office” support, or corrections…inefficient government spending represents one of Maine’s top policy problems.  It contributes to the state’s high tax burdens.  It saps government of productivity…”

The wonks who wrote the report differ from the governor in two important ways.  First, when they write that “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of inefficiencies consume resources needed for investing in prosperity,” their idea of investment is almost entirely concentrated on government expenditures, while the governor is primarily concerned with private investments.  Second, they are far too tactful to mention that the accumulation of inefficiencies that took place during forty years of Democratic Party domination.  Sure, everybody supports, and nobody opposes, policies designed to “…strip out government redundancies, cut excess expenditures, and rationalize bureaucracies,” but it was the LePage administration that initiated those policies while it was the Democratic Party that made them necessary.

We come to the section entitled “Locate Budget Savings by Slimming and Restructuring State Government” and read “First, Maine needs to launch a major top-to-bottom review of state government, given its large size, its relatively high costs, and the potential fiscal savings.”  This section advocates creating and empowering a Maine Government Efficiency Commission (MGEC), “a bi-partisan panel of 12 independent-minded, and respected private citizens jointly appointed by the governor and by the majority and minority leaders in the legislature and empowered to spearhead the efficiency search.”

The Democrats did not bother to establish any such commission during the four years of their continued domination of Maine’s government.  Worse, their 2010 gubernatorial nominee, Libby Mitchell, attempted to terminate the recently created Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), although the report had recommended integrating it into the reform program.

Governor LePage made no attempt to follow the MGEC recommendation either.  His own business and mayoralty career has largely focused on improving efficiency and he relies on key appointments to improve bureaucratic performance.  He saw no need for an independent commission.  More, he is not much inclined to include the legislature in efficiency projects.

Our governor makes a point of not being a politician and is open to criticism for treating the legislature as an irrelevancy at best, an obstruction at worst.  Examine the section on slimming state government and you will see signs that the Brookings wonks share his skepticism about legislators.  They recommend private citizens for service on the Efficiency Commission, not legislators.  They advise expedited consideration with an 18-month time-limit.  They urge a single implementation bill with a single up-or-down vote, amendments prohibited.  In sum, they do not trust the politicians to get involved in government reform.  Their attitude becomes quite explicit on page 107: “In short, by creating the Maine Government Efficiency Commission, the state will gain a strong, certain new mechanism for forcing legislators to achieve the transformative efficiencies…”

FORCE the legislature to do the right thing?  Why didn’t our governor ever think of that?

Moving along we come to the section headed “Apply Savings from Government Efficiencies to Income Tax Reduction” where we find the recommendation to “…address the state’s high top marginal rate on the personal income tax and extremely low income threshold at which it kicks in.  Few tax-system features send more prominent signals about a state’s business climate or hospitality to migrants than the state’s top income tax rate.” Read that again.  If you incline leftwards, read it over and over until it sinks in (reminding yourself repeatedly that is not quoted from a Paul LePage speech).  Next repeat “Maine must work to lower the top rate of the income tax…” as many times as necessary.  Keep in mind that the Brookings Institution is the sanest and most distinguished among the left lurching think tanks.  The phrase “taxing the rich” does not appear anywhere in its analysis.  We must assume that Mark Eves and Justin Alfond have never read the “Charting” document.  Otherwise, we would be compelled to conclude that they are a pair of sleazy demagogues.

Paul LePage has repeatedly made the same point as the Brookings analysts in another recommendation: “…Maine must step up its efforts to promote regional collaboration on local service delivery, most particularly in the faster-growing parts of the state where the costs of providing police and fire protection, parks, and other services exceed the state norm.”  Like Paul LePage, they argue that regional cooperation on service provision are absolutely vital if Maine towns are to limit property taxes without sacrificing services.  The former mayor of Waterville understands how welcome state contributions are to local government leadership, but he also understands local governments will be slow to seek economies as long as they can rely on state money to fill their funding short-falls, thus allowing them to run their own shows.  This is a point to keep in mind whenever you hear squalling about his determination to reduce state subsidies to local governments.

The liberal think tank is emphatic about the diversion of educational funds from the classroom to the administrative superstructure.  Those who have paid attention to our conservative governor’s remarks on the same subject will find little difference on this issue.

The governor and the Washington liberals are far apart on most issues of government spending (which they prefer to call “investment”) on economic development initiatives, but their points of agreement are very much central to his whole program for the State of Maine.

About John Frary

Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of www.fraryhomecompanion.com and can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com

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