The Maine Viewpoint
Editorial opinions from across the state.
MAINE SUNDAY TELEGRAM
Drivers Shouldn’t “Tweet”
Give Maine credit for coming up with an original approach to address the distracted driving problem. But take some of the credit right back for a Department of Transportation (DOT) program that seeks to inform drivers about road construction projects by sending out “tweets” on Twitter, the Web-based social networking site that is accessible by cell phones.
That means in the same year the legislature sent a stern message to drivers about the danger of using their electronic devices when they are behind the wheel, the government is sending out electronic messages to drivers.
That sounds distracting to us.
Maine did not specify a particular device in its statute, such as a cell phone or laptop, because the technology keeps changing. The law also recognizes that electronic communications are not the only cause of distraction. Drivers who take their eyes off the road when eating, putting on makeup, or reading books are just as dangerous. The Maine law doesn’t allow a driver to be pulled over just for appearing distracted. Its penalties don’t kick in unless the driver is involved in an accident or is cited for another offense, like driving to endanger.
The tweets are a new program developed by the Maine DOT to give drivers information that could route vehicles away from traffic jams. So far, according to the New York Times, it has only been used on a road construction project in the Portland area.
Maine is one of many states that have tried using “tweets” to communicate with drivers. It still should stop completely, if for no other reason than it sends the wrong message.
This is a classic example of the government’s right hand not knowing what the left is doing. It also shows how deeply ingrained the addiction to instant information and electronic devices has become. The state should not be telling people that distracted driving is against the law and sending out electronic messages for drivers to read at the same time.
While the details of these laws still have to be fine-tuned, there should be no disagreement that driving is demanding and dangerous enough to require the driver’s attention at all times, and information about road conditions should just have to wait.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS
Pork Versus Reality
When you are a hammer, as the saying goes, everything is a nail. So it is with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which answers “cut government spending” to every question.
The conservative group released its “piglet book” this fall, which it said showed that state government wasted $2 billion over the last five years. Listing how much the state spent on bottled water, judges’ salaries, and construction projects that were never actually funded may look impressive, but it tells people very little about how the state manages its resources.
Worse, some of the book’s commentary is just wrong. “Government spending is out of control,” says the executive summary. “State government continues to grow in spite of a poor economy.” Grow? The state budget passed earlier this year is five hundred million dollars smaller than the previous biennial budget. The number of state employees has decreased by more than a thousand since 2002. A case could be made that these decreases aren’t big enough, but they aren’t growth.
The summary continues: “Waste, mismanagement, abuse, and fraud are all to blame for the overspending problem in Maine government.”
Actually, Maine, like other states, has a fundamental problem: Its residents want lots of government services — well-maintained roads, police to answer their calls, schools to educate their children, treatment for the mentally ill — but they don’t want to pay for it. Maine has another problem: It has a small population spread across a large area, so delivering government services is more expensive. This is likely why the state spent nearly $8 million on mileage reimbursements in 2007 and 2008, an example from the “piglet book.” Wasteful? Probably not to the people who expect the new bridge in town to be inspected nor to the family who expected the state police to come investigate a murder nor to the child whose life is kept on track by visits from a case worker.
Listing what one group calls wasteful spending or putting artificial caps on state spending and making tax increases virtually impossible doesn’t capture these fundamental problems. And it certainly does nothing to address them.
It is far easier to stand on the sidelines and say that everything state lawmakers and bureaucrats do is wrong. It is far more difficult to join the discussion and offer realistic alternatives. Don’t think the tax reform plan put forward by Democrats was the best approach? Offer a different way to cut taxes without gutting state revenue. Don’t think the state should pay so much overtime? Discuss different ways to manage the workload.
Groups that oppose the Democrats’ domination of the State House would also do well to recruit and support their own candidates. Want a more business-friendly legislature? Support business owners who are willing to serve.
Ditto for those who want to reshape government.
Printing a book full of big numbers is a sure way to get attention. But without putting those big numbers into any context, they are meaningless.
SUN JOURNAL, LEWISTON
Okay to Question Oxford Aviation
An unexplained irony of Oxford Aviation is this: If its business model is so promising, why does it need government investments to keep going?
As a recent investigative report in the Forecaster and republished in the Sun Journal detailed, the Oxford County-based aircraft refurbisher has consistently relied upon government to expand its business over the past twenty years, through several sizable grants and programs to provide tax incentives.
Officials have hailed Oxford Aviation during this period. Governor John Baldacci has said Oxford is an example of how his signature economic development policy, Pine Tree Zones, are better than what other states, such as New Hampshire, have to offer. (Given this superiority is defined by offering more tax breaks than other states, this is not altogether comforting.)
Neither is the story of Oxford Aviation. There should be concern about any business still knocking at the public’s door after two decades, looking for more money. At what point does this relationship move from incubating into dependence? When does the government say no?
Nobody seems to know. Take the statewide expansion of Pine Tree Zones during the recent legislative session, hailed as bolstering the economy. This was cynically predicted years ago by economists and legislators, who remarked that politicians couldn’t resist taking a piece of the pie.
While expanding the zones — which provide breaks on sales, income, and payroll taxes — invites businesses to explore more of the state, it also controverts the founding purpose of the program to promote development in rural, distressed areas of Maine.
Now, with these benefits statewide, these areas are again at a disadvantage. Government can be effective in promoting industries and entrepreneurs, by offering the tools and incentives to get their businesses running. And government should assist businesses in times of trouble, when economic conditions demand extraordinary action.
Returning to the public trough, time and again, without accountability is not right, however. A 2006 report by the watchdog Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found economic development is measured more by dollars spent than by dollars generated. Gauging returns on investments or appraising performance was not the norm.
It should be. Oxford Aviation has been the singular beneficiary of significant public investment for twenty years. It is appropriate to question where this money has gone and whether promises were kept.
And whether more should be spent.
MOUNT DESERT ISLANDER
The Viewshed Police
Earlier this summer, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of neighbors who sought to prevent the Uliano family of Salsbury Cove from constructing a private pier at their property on Eastern Bay. The court affirmed a judgment in Hancock County Superior Court upholding the Maine Board of Environmental Protection’s (BEP) denial of the Ulianos’ request to build a modest pier in front of their home. While opponents of the pier are hailing the decision as a great victory, it is, in reality, a troubling day for private property rights and fresh and saltwater marine interests in the state of Maine.
Of particular concern was the court’s focus on the aesthetic impact of a pier as sufficient grounds for denial. At the very least, the board and court should have found that aesthetic considerations, due entirely to their subjective nature, should not be considered when a permit comes up for review. The BEP already had ruled that the proposed pier would not interfere with shore use on neighboring properties or with boating, nor cause great environmental harm.
How long will it be before seasonal owners of shorefront estates use that precedent and their economic muscle to oppose and hamstring traditional fishing interests? What wealthy waterfront property owner in his right mind wants to look out on a bunch of piled-up lobster traps, stinky barrels of bait, or rusted pickup trucks on a ramshackle wharf?
The court was divided in the Uliano ruling. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Donald Alexander warned of the subjectivity of the BEP decision. “Because standards of beauty or aesthetics are essentially personal and unquantifiable, our constitutional due process standards do not permit the approval or disapproval of applications to be based on vague standards such as beauty or aesthetics that can arbitrarily and capriciously be applied without giving any guidance as to what is necessary for approval or disapproval,” he wrote. His reasoning is dead on.
Justice Alexander, who called the BEP’s ten single-spaced pages of findings in the denial “rambling and obscure,” went on to note the board had reasoned that because beachcombers, boaters, kayak groups, and members of a nearby private club could see the proposed pier, thus altering an existing “viewshed,” that would constitute an unreasonable interference. “If this proposal can be rejected on this basis, then any alteration of any existing shorefront, lakefront, or riverfront can be similarly rejected,” Justice Alexander wrote.
Amazingly, the precedent set by this latest ruling makes it doubtful any existing private pier in the state would be permitted today, especially if the BEP “Viewshed Police” are allowed to continue expanding their authority and bureaucratic scope unfettered.
Along the coast of Maine, fish wharves and private piers jutting out from the rocky shore are as much a part of the landscape as rolling fields, rambling white homes, and big old barns in farm country. Not apart from the viewshed, they are part of it. When no threat to endangered species, and no obvious interference to navigation or other uses, piers and wharves, like the one sought by the Ulianos, should be permitted as a matter of course.
(Photograph by ©IStockPhoto.com/monkeypics)