The Maine Viewpoint
BANGOR DAILY NEWS
Embracing the Cold
An amusing article about the L.L. Bean store in the New York Times by one of its cleverer reporters, Alex Kuczynski, included an offhand complaint that "there's no place colder in the world, it seems, than Maine on a late-summer evening." Fresh from steamy New York, she found it especially cold as she made her way from a relatively comfy hotel room in Freeport at 1 a.m. to see what the famous store looked like at night.
Visitors can be expected to carp about Maine's weather, but there is no need for Mainers to join the chorus that Maine in summer can turn a bit chilly and that Maine winters are outright horrible. True enough, a nip in the air will arrive with glorious sunny days as the official start of fall approaches. Nip and all, there will be plenty more of this lovely weather as the trees turn yellow, red, and bronze and the vees of ducks and geese head south.
Then will come winter, hesitatingly at first but downright seriously by January and February. Some Mainers actually hate the winter cold and flee to Florida for a couple of months. But except for those snowbirds, most of us have learned to take winter as it comes and make the best of it. We prepare for it by getting out our heavy sweaters, wool stockings, high-top boots, double-layer gloves - the more daring go for caps with pull-down ear flaps. We lay in a good supply of seasoned firewood and change to snow tires. Some still bank their homes with brush and plastic sheeting to keep the cold from coming up through the floor.
A management consultant said the other day that Maine needed a new "brand" to take the place of the common saying that Maine stands only for cold and the Patriots. He has a point, and part of the solution is for Mainers themselves to take pride and enjoyment in the whole annual cycle instead of spending the winter telling each other to "keep warm" and fretting about "climbing March Hill."
We are here because we love it. And our own attitudes may help persuade more businesses to settle here and more college graduates in Maine to stay here and those from other states to settle here.
Winter in Maine is an asset, not a liability. And if that sometimes seems hard to accept, remember that starting on December 21 the days will start getting longer and the nights shorter in a cycle that we can't really do anything about.
TIMES RECORD, BRUNSWICK
Health care cures
Political practitioners diagnose health care to be the defining domestic issue of the 2008 presidential campaign. The topic seems to spawn a perpetual pandemic of headlines. Let's run three recent Maine-related health-care headlines through a metaphorical X-ray machine to probe for substance beneath their thin skin and isolate meaning from rhetoric.
1. Dirigo fee proposal halved by regulator.
Eric Cioppa, Maine's acting insurance commissioner, announced recently that the Dirigo Health Agency can collect $32.8 million from private insurance firms and companies that self-insure to fund the DirigoChoice program in 2008. The $32.8 million represents less than half of what Dirigo Health officials had sought to assess as a "savings offset payment" - the amount that Dirigo allegedly saved the overall health insurance system during the past year.
Dirigo Health remains a noble experiment, but nobility doesn't pay the bills. The Baldacci administration's refusal to heed the recommendations of the blue-ribbon task force the governor commissioned to propose a long-term Dirigo funding mechanism means it's time for the legislature to intervene.
With a cap on DirigoChoice enrollments, the Baldacci administration's consistently overstated and unrealistically grandiose estimates of systemic savings aren't likely to materialize. A mix of private market practices - i.e., expand the pool of insured by making DirigoChoice the state workforce's medical plan - and dedicated "sin tax" increases on items that add to public health costs - i.e., tobacco and alcohol - might take Dirigo off life support.
2. New legislation extends health care coverage.
A press conference in Gorham promoted passage of LD 841, Representative Christopher Barstow's bill to extend health insurance coverage to dependent children up to age twenty-five.
This plan makes sense. It provides a much-needed, private sector safety net to young people highly prone to going without health insurance because they can't afford the premiums.
LD 841 benefits the overall health care system by adding generally healthy individuals to the pool of insured, while at the same time reducing the potential for system- and life-busting financial ruin resulting from treatment of twenty-something patients who would otherwise be uninsured. Market and governmental imperatives align.
See item 1.
3. Health care spending highest in the Northeast.
Per capita annual health care costs during 2004 in New England averaged $6,409, a figure that's $1,126 more than the national average, according to federal government statistics in the journal Health Affairs.
The same report indicates that per capita spending on medical care increased an average of 6.3 percent per year between 1998 and 2004, far outpacing inflation. For this, Americans receive care that the World Health Organization recently rated thirty-
seventh in terms of quality - right below Costa Rica and Dominica.
The Health Affairs report notes that, in 2004, the per-person average cost of health care in Maine was $6,540, affirming that "colder" plus "older" adds up to "bigger bills to shoulder" and, more importantly, that any meaningful health care reform must include national remedies.
See item 1 - again.
KENNEBEC JOURNAL, AUGUSTA
Learning from past mistakes
Augusta's downtown is architecturally distinguished. It's located on a newly restored river popular with anglers from across the region. Compared to many Maine cities and towns, its rents are cheap. There's space above storefronts for both businesses and rental units.
There's an old theater just begging to be restored, a multimillion-dollar historic renovation soon to start at the Old Arsenal building just across the river, a gorgeous new high school up the street, and the state Capitol, park, cultural center, and many office buildings less than a mile away.
And Augusta is filled with folks who care about downtown and want it to thrive. So what's wrong with this picture? Why isn't downtown thriving?
Two experts on downtown revitalization recently paid a visit to Augusta. Combination cheerleaders and taskmasters, they said Augusta was poised for great things, there was no lack of good ideas to bring life to downtown - but that "now is the time to get off the dime and move ahead with activities."
With an energetic and enthusiastic new mayor in Roger Katz, who has proven his mettle in any number of Augusta-oriented fund-raising campaigns, Maine's capital has a great cheerleader of its own to begin real movement into the future. A soon-to-be-issued new comprehensive plan should provide the context and underpinnings for any downtown revitalization. There's a growing awareness among city councilors that the age of major retail expansion on the city's fringes is just about over, and it's time to focus back on Water Street. And there's growing pride among Augusta residents and a building sense that the time is ripe for a downtown renaissance.
Augusta should capitalize on this momentum and get its downtown moving. But before one more committee is appointed to undertake that task, we need to understand why so many efforts in the past have come to naught.
There's an alphabet soup of groups, including, most recently, the Capital Riverfront Improvement District (or CRID), that began with great fanfare . . . but not enough has been accomplished. The parking garage constructed to serve as an impetus to downtown growth was a major undertaking - but sadly, is rarely filled with the vehicles it was supposed to attract.
Those who participated in these earlier groups should be interviewed - anonymously, if necessary - for their input on why their efforts have produced so little. There's much to be learned through such an inquiry about how not to make progress and what mistakes should be avoided.
Thus armed, our mayor and a group of can-do and committed people can really dig into the problem at hand: how to turn our gorgeous but almost lifeless downtown into the attraction it deserves to be.
Stuck in the middle
It costs one dollar to drive from Lewiston to Augusta on I-95, the Maine Turnpike. It costs sixty cents to drive from Portland to Augusta on I-295. It costs $1.25 to drive from Lewiston to Portland on the Turnpike. It costs sixty cents to drive from Augusta to Portland on I-295.
There's our forty and sixty-five cents, respectively, on why Governor John Baldacci shouldn't react so harshly to the prospect of new tolls on I-295, the feeder highway between Portland and Augusta. Those stuck in the middle, Lewiston-Auburn, now suffer from higher toll costs for access to our communities.
It's unfair. Tolls for travel between southern and central Maine - in both directions - should at least be equal on both highways. The discount for I-295 undoubtedly lures travelers away from I-95 for the stretch through Lewiston-Auburn, and neighbors like Sabattus, Gray, and New Gloucester. And a new service plaza at I-295/I-95 West Gardiner is opening while Lewiston's is closing. Hmmm. . . .
The legislature's Transportation Committee recently agreed to study the prospect of tolls on I-295 to generate additional revenue for infrastructure maintenance. Maine is facing a $2.2-billion gap in what it requires for infrastructure projects and what it can raise from current revenue sources.
Fuel taxes have been the primary source of transportation funds, but meteoric prices and emphasis on controlling fuel consumption have made gasoline a volatile revenue generator. The transportation committee has wisely made finding new revenue streams for infrastructure its top priority.
The toll study is its first effort. Governor Baldacci, in response, issued a statement saying there's more savings to be had from consolidating the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) within the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), than building tollbooths today along a highway where they don't exist.
He might be right. But even if the MTA and the MDOT merge and go on the governor's consolidation diet like the schools and probably the jails, it won't alter the obvious inequality in the toll system. L-A's been unfortunate when it comes to highways. The turnpike snakes far from the cities, and its exits, 75 in Danville and 80 on outer Lisbon Street, are inconvenient to L-A's commercial center. It's likely the decision to route the turnpike away from L-A's downtowns has contributed to their struggles.
Then there's the I-295 discount. Without access to this cheaper alternative, those who live in L-A and those heading to L-A pay more to use the turnpike, while others cruise from Falmouth to Gardiner.
Baldacci might oppose new tolls in principal, but he shouldn't dismiss the idea without study. A new report cites L-A's economic growth as the best among Maine's major cities. Doesn't this region deserve some consideration for a further boost by removing an incentive to bypass it?
PORTLAND PRESS HERALD
Good news for BIW
Bath Iron Works (BIW) got a welcome surprise from the U.S. Navy recently, and it came in the form of an especially meaningful tribute to the company's personnel and work ethic.
The navy had previously been expected to award the lead ship in a new generation of warships to another manufacturer, Northrup Grumman, which now owns what was formerly the Ingalls Shipbuilding yard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. BIW had been expected to get the delivery of weaponry and electronic systems necessary to complete the vessel after its rival, meaning that it would have had a significant gap in its navy workload. That could have led to at least temporary layoffs for a substantial part of its work force.
Now, however, the navy has awarded that equipment to the Bath shipyard first, which will allow it to build the lead ship in the new DDG 1000 class of surface combatants. The shipyard, a subsidary of General Dynamics Corp., is scheduled to complete its last vessel of the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers in late 2010 or early 2011. Getting the weapons and electronics systems for the new class of destroyers, named after former Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, will likely lessen or even preclude any impact on the size of its work force.
The vessels will cost about three billion dollars each and have a crew of 147. So far, the navy has committed to building seven of them, and this decision may give BIW a shot at getting four of that number.
In a state where keeping blue-collar workers earning a high rate of pay has become a difficult task, this decision will make a real difference for thousands of skilled Maine shipbuilders. That's a result worth celebrating.
LINCOLN COUNTY NEWS, NEWCASTLE
A County Tax Revolt
The tax revolt has not reached the people - yet. Right now we have dueling levels of government, the state and the counties.
The latest flap is Governor John Baldacci's proposal to take over the county jails and establish a statewide corrections system. The governor projects a $10-million savings in the first year and estimated to grow to $38 million in savings a year by 2015. His priorities are to relieve pressure on the property taxpayer and to better provide for prisoners.
Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties pulled together to share authority of a new jail, Two Bridges, in Wiscasset. The need for more jail space was met and a new jail built. We in Lincoln County share the debt for the new jail with Sagadahoc and will continue to pay for it, if and when the state takes it over. County commissioners in their statement of opposition to the plan liken the takeover as having someone become the owner of your house without picking up the mortgage payment or the living expenses.
In an earlier plan, the governor talked about taking over the full cost of the county system, including the current $71-million operating costs. In the new proposal, the state will pick up operation cost increases only, and those figures are pure speculation and out of our control.
It all comes back to property taxes, and that burden falls to us. The bleak truth is that state government is incapable of reining in its spending and bloated bureaucracies, and must balance its budget by filling the hole with our property taxes.
Another nail in the coffin of local control will only exacerbate our taxation woes.
Saving the Town Meeting
We have watched with interest, sometimes with dismay, as the current board of selectmen in Rockport has tinkered with the idea of what local government should do and how it should do it. And while we understand the narrow strand of logic that supports the latest notion - doing away with town meeting - we are agin it.
The argument is based on the undeniable fact that few people bother to show up for annual town meeting each year. So it is suggested that the town might as well do without it, and that all the issues formerly decided upon at town meeting would be decided by
But if the town were to place every item from June town meeting onto a secret ballot, then the ballot form itself could become about as long as the Book of Genesis. In the end, fewer and fewer people will probably even bother to check all the boxes, and the lofty goal of involving more people in local decision making would prove to be pretty hollow.
Furthermore, with no public town meeting to attend, there would be no place to discuss, dispute, and debate the various matters on the secret ballot. True, there would be formal public hearings. But does the town seriously propose to conduct separate and adequate hearings on thirty or forty separate items?
And if voters are reluctant to attend town meeting in large numbers, you can bet they'd be even less likely to attend the aforementioned public hearings. (Already nobody turns up for the equivalent of such a lengthy and dull public hearing on the high school budget each spring.) As a result, much of town business would be decided on the basis of little or no discussion. We don't think that is the way for any responsible community to handle its affairs.
Waldoboro tried it. Waldoboro doesn't like it. Why? Because Waldoboro made the change to all-ballot meetings for an illogical reason. They felt that people were afraid to put their hands up at a public meeting, so they chose this as a solution.
Whether it is easy or not, putting your hand up at a public meeting is part of our democratic process. So is having a forum to argue over whether a given course of action is correct. They might not produce the optimum participation in all public debates, but these methods are still among the best we know for settling certain matters.
We urge people in Rockport to see it the same way.