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“Reinventing Maine Government:” 10 Myths That Hold Us Back

“Reinventing Maine Government” is a new report that details how overspending on Maine government is contributing to the state’s poor economy. The most revealing conclusion in the report shows that if Maine government just brought its spending down to the national average for similar rural states, it would reduce the budget by a billion dollars a year.

That won’t be easy to do. To accomplish that, Mainers need to let go of some myths that they still cling to. Here are the 10 myths detailed in the report. (See much more detail in the report at www.envisionmaine.org.)

One of the first things that Mainers need to do, if real change is going to happen in government, is to confront our tendency to operate in a kind of ‘fact-free’ zone.

Mainers cling to cherished myths and argue them as though they were inscribed on stone tablets brought down from high mountains. These myths come from different sources. Some arise from ideological or partisan positions, superstitions and sometimes from plain wishful thinking. Whatever the source, they have long served as powerful brakes against Maine moving forward.

Here are a few of the most common myths that stand in our way.

1. We can have it all.

This is undoubtedly the most widespread and dangerous myth of all. It takes various forms and shapes, depending on where you find it. It allows us to pretend that we can have unlimited services from government –great schools and communities, good roads and colleges, generous social programs—and still have low taxes, even with a weak economy.

Or that taxes are an unlimited resource for any need defined as urgent. And there is the old “local control” notion that we can have one of everything in every town and it won’t cost us more, because smaller is always better.

2. Our current fiscal problems are temporary

For decades, government balance sheets rose and fell with the economy. About 10 years ago, that started to change. Now we find governments facing deficits even in good times. That’s because of long-standing structural changes that are happening all across the world, and also some very unique ones here.

In Maine’s case, they include our aging population, rising health care spending, unfunded pension liabilities, our tendency toward a bigger safety net than other states have, and the inefficient way in which services are delivered.

If you still think that everything will be fine the next time the economy comes back, we urge you to read the section on the Three Ticking Time Bombs. Every Maine citizen should understand those ominous trends.

3. We can change someone else’s programs but leave ours alone

If Mainers can agree on anything, it’s this: almost everyone is in favor of cutting someone else’s government.

Mainers across the state can wax eloquent about how someone else is to blame, and we should just cut their programs or their tax break or service. Political parties and candidates make a living off this one, of course, and voters fall for it every time. It’s as though politicians are saying, “What is it you want? We can give you that! It won’t cost a thing, either. And, we’ll cut government spending at the same time without making anyone unhappy.”

Thinking that change can just apply to someone else avoids reality and costs us dearly.

4. It’s all about waste, fraud and abuse

This old chestnut has been finely roasted and relished for decades. It is mostly about politicians saying something without saying anything while blaming a faceless “them.” Making speeches about waste, fraud and abuse allows politicians to rail at government without being specific enough to lose any votes.

While there is waste, fraud and abuse in every human institution, and no doubt there’s waste in Maine, we can count our blessings every day that the level of outright corruption and greed here, when compared to other states across the country, is remarkably low.

Maine has been stuck here for a long time. It’s time to move on.

5. We can cut our way to prosperity

This is another staple of political talk: “If we’d just cut taxes and get government out of the way, we’d be fine!” There’s a thread of truth in that, of course, just as there is in the next myth.

But if it were really true, Alabama would have the most vibrant economy in the nation, and Zambia and New Guinea would lead the world. Economic reality is more complicated. Strong economies need good infrastructure, good schools, healthy communities, effective law enforcement and, in some cases, partnerships between businesses and government.

Where those things are not being adequately provided, economies generally remain weak. The notable exceptions are those economies, like ours over the last two centuries, that rely heavily on the extraction of raw materials, at least until those resources are effectively used up or replaced with newer materials.

6. We can invest our way to prosperity

The counter-view to the last myth is, not surprisinglyL “We can invest our way to prosperity.” That has become the predictable rallying cry of anyone who wants to add new programs and expand government functions, pass a bond issue or otherwise defend a favorite program.

Just like the previous myth, this one has a thread of truth at its core. We do need to invest in critical functions like infrastructure and schools. But the line between a true investment and simply more spending is dangerously blurred, and the “invest our way to prosperity” argument is poorly understood and too carelessly used. The simple fact is that we need to both “cut” and “invest” our way forward.

7. All we have to do is tax the rich more

This notion allows many Mainers to overlook the fact that in today’s world capital and people can and do easily move. And they have been moving—out of Maine.

Young people are leaving. Wealthy Mainers are “residing” in other states half the year. Businesses aren’t growing. New ones aren’t coming. All of it drains our resources.

The fact is that Maine people are taxed out. Our taxes as a portion of our income are among the highest in the country and have been for too long, no matter how we quibble with the numbers. There simply isn’t an endless pool of faceless “rich” people waiting around to be taxed more for the honor and privilege of living in Maine.

Every tax increase drives more people out and accelerates a dangerous downward spiral in our economy.

8. If we keep doing things the way we always have, we’ll be OK

“We’ve always done it this way, and it worked pretty good, so we need to just keep doing it and we’ll be OK.” If only that were true.

Mainers could once again graduate from high school and step into waiting jobs at factories, where they’d earn a good living assembling some of the best shoes or fabrics or paper products in the world, often-times working alongside their fathers. Or work at the sardine canneries where their sisters worked. They could fish just offshore and bring in full nets every day.

But that world no longer exists. Maine’s—in fact, the nation’s—last sardine cannery, the Bumble Bee plant in Prospect Harbor, closed in April after 100 years. Now something else is going to happen there. Just like the people who worked at the Hathaway Shirt Co. in Waterville, the Edwards Mill in Augusta, and the shoe plants in Lewiston, the people of Prospect Harbor can’t keep on doing what they’ve always done.

Times change for all of us, for economies and even for governments. Some of the old ways still work and have to be preserved, but others are no longer productive.

9. Government can’t be changed

If the Founding Fathers had believed government could not be changed, Mainers would still be paying taxes to Massachusetts and raising toasts to the queen. The fact is, government can and does change.

The U.S. was a minor world power with a small federal government 100 years ago. Within a 40-year period, through a great depression and two world wars, government was transformed. In Maine, counties were once the primary official government of Maine, public education happened in one-room schools and major local issues were almost always decided in town meetings.

Change is never easy, but it is constantly happening. Even areas with traditions of strong local governance have managed to change. Denmark had 86 counties and 1,300 municipalities until 1970. Today it has five regional governments and 98 municipalities. Closer to home, changes have also happened in Quebec and New Brunswick. The people of those areas love their heritage as much as we Mainers love ours. Change wasn’t any easier for them than it is for us. But they did what they needed to do.

10. If only we had a strong leader

If you’re waiting for Andy Jackson to ride his white horse over the next hill to drive the elites out of government and fight for the little guy, take a seat. It could be a while.

The reality is, no single person can solve all the problems Maine confronts, no matter how intelligent, articulate or charismatic they are. We’re a state with a strong tradition of popular will. We’re a town meeting state. A referendum state. A place where leaders can move mountains, but only when we agree to let them—and then help.

That isn’t to say we don’t need strong and effective leaders at all levels of government. We do. But none of them can do the job that needs to be done, without active public support from Mainers all across the state, in places large and small.

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