The Maine Viewpoint
Editorial opinions from across the state.
Mount Desert Islander, Bar Harbor
Is Green the New Black?
It’s always easy to stand up and yell “no.”
White is considered a color because it is composed of all the colors of the spectrum. Black is not a color because black objects absorb all colors and reflect nothing. In effect, black represents the absence of all color — nothing.
With that definition in mind, it is fair, then, to say the “green” movement in Maine is the new black. In recent years the green movement has fought against nearly every single development project, regardless of its merits, minimal impact, or usefulness to society. And, the greens have gone even further. They have fought against bringing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal to the coast that would provide energy cleaner than oil or coal. And they have opposed new hydroelectric power. Recently the head of the Green Party, who has already announced her plans to run for governor, filed suit on behalf of a group hoping to stop a wind power project in Lincoln that doesn’t threaten any major natural or recreationally significant areas.
It’s always easy to stand up and yell “no.” But that response to any new proposal should not be automatic, the only apparent option. Nobody is suggesting that Maine should recklessly sacrifice its non-renewable resources or the health of its people for private economic gain. At a time when our nation, as a whole, needs to develop as many renewable sources of energy as possible, continuing to be against everything is counterproductive and antisocial.
Maine’s green movement needs to lead by providing solutions, not just opposition. Otherwise, being green in Maine will become just a synonym for black.
Lewiston Sun Journal
Paying Past Due Debts
News that Governor John Baldacci will ask the Obama administration for a Medicaid waiver for Dirigo Health is not exactly news; the waiver, which would match federal funds to Dirigo premium payments, was part of Dirigo 1.0. If granted — a significant “if,” given it’s been denied before — the waiver would deliver two-for-one matches on Dirigo premiums paid by Medicaid-eligible persons, according to the Capitol News Service.
This would be literally pennies from heaven for cash-strapped Dirigo, whose new funding source (beverage taxes) was rejected and whose current funding source (the Savings Offset Payment) is having its legality challenged anew. But a waiver poses a problem: If Maine gets more Medicaid money, funding Dirigo isn’t the top priority. Medicaid’s three hundred-plus million dollar debt to Maine hospitals should arguably be paid first.
This debt is growing faster than the government’s ability to pay it; some hospital officials have estimated the gap is maturing at the actuarially alarming rate of ten dollars every minute. Central Maine Medical Center is owed 68 million dollars, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center 12 million dollars, and Franklin Memorial Hospital $25.5 million. That latter hospital has since sued the state to pay its MaineCare bill in full, and stop accruing any more debt. That suit is pending. So are the payments.
With tight budget times on the horizon — both on the state and federal levels — the outlook for repaying this debt is probably the grimmest in memory. More money for Dirigo would stabilize the program and perhaps re-open enrollment, which is capped. A stronger Dirigo could reduce more of Maine’s uninsured and give more access to care. Research into cost saving measures through the Maine Quality Forum could also be enhanced.
But more money for Dirigo won’t improve health care delivery as much as relieving hospitals from the burden of unstoppable Medicaid debt would.
Maine’s Medicaid system is generous and expensive. An expansion in 2002 is cited for the reimbursement gap, as greater utilization drove up costs. The unabashedly conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center released a report in November saying welfare spending (which includes MaineCare) is tops in the nation in terms of burden on income.
Amid this spending, though, hospitals aren’t paid. There are consequences: Doctors turn away Medicaid patients, costs for the privately insured increase, or quality of care declines. These possible outcomes call for paying hospitals first, if more Medicaid money flows into Maine. And that makes it tough to explain why Dirigo should be saved, instead.
Journal Tribune, Biddeford
A Thrifty Government — imagine that
The project to bring the town of Dayton a new municipal building deserves nothing less than a standing ovation.
The small York County town has been growing, and many of its municipal structures (the Dayton Consolidated School and the old Town Hall) were growing ever more threadbare as greater use brought greater wear. The school was addressed in the past few years, though not without controversy. So, the next project, in the eyes of the town’s elders, was making a new home for the local government.
Beginning on Labor Day weekend last September, volunteers, municipal officials, and employees began the process of making the dream a reality, building a facility large enough to host town business and Town Meeting under one roof (while not using the basement, for example). Engineers said it couldn’t be done for less than seven hundred thousand dollars, and would take far longer than those diligent volunteers expected. In both cases, the predictions were wrong.
For $450,000, and in less than four months, the building is operational, and town officials are enjoying their new home. The taxpayers were given a massive break (the building costs were kept low) and will reap the benefits of the moving of the old Town Hall, too, sold to a local construction firm as its new office. Chock up another thousand dollars saved. The building is large enough to accommodate the expanding town, and allow for Town Meeting to be held where it is supposed to be: in the heart of the community.
As Code Enforcement Officer Jim Roberts said, “I really think as a group we did a heck of a job. It went so well, there was no way we could lose.”
We say, “Absolutely, Jim.” When the naysayers in life chime in, telling tales of municipal tax abuse and failure of government to produce in a fiscally responsible and timely manner, we will point to Dayton and say, “It can be done.”
As one official put it, other communities should take note that projects can be completed at a limited cost and still meet all the needs of government. As financial times continue to be tough, our suggestion is to draw upon the great volunteer nature of the people of York County to make things happen.
Instead of automatically going to the bidding process and hoping, call upon the residents of the community and see what efforts can be brought to bear on the issue. More than likely it will cost less, be done faster, and will instill the virtues of community we often lose in the process of doing business as usual.
Portland Press Herald
Preparing for an Older Work force
There is nothing magic about the number sixty-five when it comes to a retirement age. When it was first instituted in Bismarck’s Germany, it was a safe age to start offering a pension because few people lived long enough to collect.
When it was officially adopted as the age for full Social Security benefits in this country, it had less to do with a senior’s inability to work and more with opening up jobs for younger people during the Great Depression. In this era, when people live longer, healthier lives, it should not surprise us that a growing number of older people choose to stay in the work force. In Maine, we should all get used to it — an older work force is our future.
Projections based on U.S. Census data tell us that Maine, which already has the country’s oldest median age, is just going to keep getting older. This is true for the entire Northeast as well, meaning that we will be in competition with other nearby states to keep and attract older workers.
People find that they are not ready to sit idly by when they hit their sixties. An active life that involves at least part-time work keeps them involved as well as paying bills not covered by their retirement savings. Employers are also finding that seniors make good workers who only need a few accommodations. Older workers who have retired from demanding careers are often looking for flexible, part-time, less-stressful positions.
Communities should consider issues like public transit and access to health care services in their planning if they want to compete for older workers in the future. As our population ages, they may be the best workers around.
Times Record, Brunswick
Feckless State Fiddlers
Like modern Neros clad in flannel togas, representatives of state government’s natural resources agencies and their most familiar lobbyists spent six months fiddling while their empires burned. After meeting periodically since spring, a task force assigned to find possible grounds for merging services currently divided among the departments of Agriculture, Conservation, Marine Resources, and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife dissolved recently without recommending any meaningful changes or identifying any significant savings.
In a thirty-page report, the thirty-seven-member Natural Resource Agency Task Force offered its list of suggestions to make state management of natural resources more efficient. However, that list doesn’t include consolidation of any state departments. Despite the exigency of widening shortfalls in both the current budget and the next biennial state spending plan, task force members seemed more intent on marking their territories than seeking realistic solutions.
“How can you make a shift in agency organization without having one person’s interests diluted or diminished?” asked Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe. Isn’t that the point — the logical outcome of consolidation? Isn’t that the same bitter pill the Baldacci administration and the 123rd Legislature shoved down the throats of school officials throughout Maine?
For too long, state government’s bureaucratic fiefdoms have served their own interests while foisting the real pain of this prolonged economic downturn onto municipalities and school systems. The failure of the Natural Resources Agency Task Force to propose any meaningful streamlining represents the latest example of state government’s inability or unwillingness to apply the same standards to itself that it expects of local governments. The will to think creatively to find savings seems sorely lacking in the State House and its environs.
At the same time municipal and school officials are adjusting budgets halfway through their fiscal years and bracing for more cuts to accommodate state government’s inability to meet its funding obligations to local services, commissioners become more protective than proactive. As members of the 124th Legislature grapple with state government’s churning budget maelstrom, they must resist the urge to simply pass problems down the line to localities.
Doing so would perpetuate the Baldacci administration’s and the 123rd Legislature’s disrespectful dismissal of voters will, as evidenced most resoundingly by the 2004 referendum to increase state funding of public education to 55 percent of the total cost.
Instead, legislators must demand that department heads and agency leaders arise from their bunkers and work together to revamp state government in a way that achieves meaningful savings. If state officials can’t come up with the savings, maybe it’s time to dissolve their agencies and redirect those administrative costs to localities, where the real work’s done.
Bangor Daily News
A Head Start for College
Thousands of Maine kids will get a start on college savings this year — just by being born. The Harold Alfond College Challenge went statewide on January 1 after a successful start last year at MaineGeneral Health facilities in Waterville and Augusta. The challenge provides a five-hundred-dollar scholarship, to be invested in a NextGen College Investing Plan account, for each newborn in Maine. More than 14,000 babies are expected to be born in the state this year.
The challenge began in January 2008 with funds from the late Harold Alfond, the founder of Dexter Shoe and the state’s first philanthropic foundation. Last year, 320 babies were given the scholarships.
According to the Finance Authority of Maine, in eighteen years at 8 percent interest, a five-hundred-dollar grant, without any additional contribution, would grow to two thousand dollars. With a contribution of fifty dollars per month, the account could grow to twenty-five thousand dollars in eighteen years, a strong inducement for families and employers to seek ways to make such further contributions a reality.
The message behind the scholarship program is as important as the money itself. In a state where too few students go on to college, getting parents to think about — and better yet to plan and save for — their children’s higher education is a big boost. A report by the Mitchell Institute released last summer found that plenty of Maine students and their families had college aspirations. The problem was they weren’t planning for it.
According to the report, 85 percent of high school juniors and seniors said they expected to go on to a four- or two-year college right after high school. In 2006, however, only 57 percent of that year’s high school graduates enrolled in college, the lowest in more than five years and below New England and national averages.
The report cited many reasons for the college gap, but finances remain a top concern. “Nothing will prevent me from going to college except money,” a high school student told the institute researchers. Parents, too, are concerned with paying for college, with about a third saying finances will determine if their children attend college and two-thirds saying finances will determine which school their child attends.
This is a costly decision. Someone with a Bachelor of Arts degree earns on average 62 percent more than someone with a high school diploma, worth about one million dollars more over a lifetime of work. Also consider, in 1950, 60 percent of jobs in Maine were blue collar; now only 25 percent are. Two-thirds of the state’s fastest-growing economic sectors require education beyond high school.
Mr. Alfond’s legacy in money and in philosophy will help a new generation be better prepared for these and other challenges.
Portland Press Herald
A Councilor’s Conflict of Interest
The Portland City Council’s recent 7-2 vote to start negotiations with Ocean Properties on a $160-million development deal for the Maine State Pier was the right move — with one flaw. It should have been 6-2.
Councilor Dory Waxman chose to participate in the debate and vote even though she spent four months on the Ocean Properties’ payroll as a community organizer hired to work with the public on the pier project. That may not meet the law-book definition of conflict of interest, but it doesn’t pass the smell test, either. Waxman should do the right thing and recuse herself from future votes on this matter.
The real issue here is that Waxman took money from a company to advance a project, and now she is expected to represent the public’s interest in talks with the same company regarding the same project. The public has a right to wonder where her loyalties will lie. Waxman says that in her heart, there is no conflict. But we can’t see her heart, only her resumé.
Selecting a developer for the Maine State Pier has been an over-politicized issue for the last two years. The council divided into rival camps in support of developers Ocean Properties and the Olympia Cos., and changing that balance of power was at the heart of the last two city elections. But with Olympia out of the process, it’s time to defuse the politics. The question now is not which company to pick, but whether the city can reach an acceptable deal with Ocean Properties.
Even without her vote, there is a clear majority of councilors ready to move forward. Waxman should let it happen without her and without the questions that her involvement would inevitably raise.
Journal Tribune, Biddeford
A ZOOM in public transit
Those who use the ZOOM bus to commute to Portland from the York County area have noticed something of late: Many more riders. The skyrocketing gas prices of summer have subsided to record lows, but the seats remain full on the buses headed to Monument Square every day.
Unfortunately, increased ridership is coming at a cost. Those using the Saco Park-n-Ride lot off the Industrial Road, for example, have struggled at times to find parking spaces. An effort to open up the lot by towing illegally parked vehicles only drew ire from those willing to ride a bus to work, and forced the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit company to negotiate the use of a new lot for ride sharing commuters off of North Street.
The other cost is a proposed rate hike, which, if approved, would raise the monthly rate to eighty dollars, the equivalent to a downtown Portland parking pass. The reasoning for the hike, officials say, is to offset the ever-increasing deficit at which the bus service is running. Even with double the ridership, money is being lost, and some runs (such as the very early morning trips, which are relatively empty) will be cut.
We understand why ZOOM prices are going up, and we empathize with our neighbors, family, and friends who choose the environmentally friendly and convenient way to travel. Now is the time, then, for the state and federal government to step up and support such public transportation efforts, though we don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Having financial woes does not mean public transportation support should be off the radar. The Obama administration should do what the Bush administration wouldn’t: focus on public transportation, not supporting the oil industry. One of the best ways to kick the foreign oil habit (before it is too late) is ride sharing and public transportation. Making such options unappealing through necessary rate hikes isn’t helping. Instead of massive tax breaks for the oil giants (who have profited extraordinarily despite the collapsing economy), money should be funneled nationally to supporting public transportation to a greater extent.
Our suggestion to ZOOM riders fed up with crowded lots and higher rates: Don’t stop riding, start writing. Write your congressional delegation and say, “Make us a priority in 2009.” Not doing so is spoiling forward momentum toward public transportation.