AUGUSTA – A new, nonpartisan think tank based in Freeport is asking some tough questions about the way government functions. These include:

Why do we have counties?

Can we afford one of everything in every town?

Are we living on credit cards?

How much legislation do we need?

The organization, Envision Maine, wants to push these issues with the public and the large field of candidates running for governor. It’s an approach that worked four years ago for Alan Caron, who at that time led another group, called GrowSmart Maine.

A groundbreaking report from GrowSmart Maine and the Brookings Institution called “Charting Maine’s Future” became a topic of serious conversation in the 2006 race for the Blaine House.

Caron, the founder of GrowSmart Maine, departed that organization last year. His new group, however, is backed by GrowSmart – it commissioned Envision Maine to write its first major report.

The report from Envision Maine – whose board of advisers includes independent former Gov. Angus King, former Central Maine Power President David Flanagan and former state Sen. Jill Goldthwait, a former GrowSmart director – will be out this spring and is designed to be a “handbook for citizens,” Caron said.

“It’s for citizen activists who know we’re in trouble and want to do something about it,” he said.

Caron has enlisted the help of David Osborne, co-author of The New York Times best-seller “Reinventing Government,” to help write the report.

Osborne, a senior partner at Public Strategies Group based in Minnesota, said the period just after a recession is an opportune time to make major structural changes to government.

“The most fertile period is after a recession when the revenues are starting to come back,” he said.

Osborne pointed to Iowa as an example of a state that has implemented major reforms.

After five years of losing revenue, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, implemented something along the lines of charter schools in 2003, except with state agencies, he said.

Six of the state’s 30 agencies volunteered for the program, which gave them more flexibility but less money.

In the first three years, the state saved $90 million, he said.

“The biggest impediment to management in government is all the rules,” said Osborne, who worked as a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore to help run the “reinventing government task force.”

Other examples are cited in the Pew Center on the 2010 State of the States report, which highlights efforts in Washington state in 2003. There, the system was called “Priorities of Government,” and they asked questions such as, “What are the essential services the state must deliver?”

The report also mentions states that have gone to a four-day workweek, and whether those kinds of changes will stay in place even after the recession ends.

Osborne and Caron think Maine has no choice but to make major reforms.

“The cost of health care is eating government alive in this country,” Osborne said. “Add to that the aging of the population, and that is what makes the current path unsustainable.”

The effects of the baby boom bubble, which transformed schools in the 1950s and is now changing the rules for retirement, is even more pronounced in Maine, which has an older population than most states.

Osborne described Maine as “not the most dynamic state” because of its aging population and because people aren’t moving here in big numbers.

“This isn’t about blaming somebody,” Osborne said. “It’s not about politics or bureaucrats wasting money. It’s something we have to deal with.”

Goldthwait, an independent former state senator from Bar Harbor, said she’s interested in making the Legislature more efficient, and in changing economic development strategies so companies that locate in Maine stay in Maine.

She’s concerned that the northern, eastern and western two-thirds of the state will become “empty.”

“We have a hard time attracting jobs and a hard time retaining them,” she said.

When it comes to the Legislature, Goldthwait said the perennial arguments over cutting a small number of legislative seats or limiting the number of bills introduced aren’t bold enough. Lawmakers need to consider a dramatic change, something like a 70-seat, unicameral, nonpartisan Legislature, she said.

A bill to create a one-body Legislature failed last year. Goldthwait said it’s hard for members of the two-party system to want to give up control.

Efforts to limit the number of bills also likely won’t succeed, but Goldthwait suggested changing the rules at the committee level might help.

Each legislative committee has House and Senate members, and she thinks requiring a vote in support of a bill from a member of each chamber would cut down on the number of bills that go up for debate.

As it is now, a single vote in support of a bill at the committee level means the bill moves forward for full House and Senate consideration.

Goldthwait said she hopes the new report will have an impact similar to the Brookings study, which helped drive an effort to reduce the number of school districts and called for restructuring state government.

“The real hope behind this effort is similar to Brookings,” Goldthwait said. “The problems will be drawn into sharper focus. It will give people a starting point that we feel is a nonpartisan one.”

For Caron, it’s important to look beyond the two-year state budget cycle for solutions.

While the state is dealing with the national recession and a current budget shortfall of $360 million, Caron wants to lay out a blueprint for a 10-year action plan.

That’s particularly difficult for governors, who serve only four years at a time, and term-limited state legislators, who serve for two years before they have to run for office again.

“We’ve entered a permanent fiscal crisis in government, and we’re not going to have all the resources in the future to do all the things we’re accustomed to doing,” he said.

Even though he’s hoping the next governor will run with some of the suggestions for change, Caron said he also realizes Mainers prefer to do things at the local level.

A recent example of that is school district consolidation. After state lawmakers mandated consolidation, a group of citizens tried to overturn the law at the ballot box.

“It doesn’t do a lot of good to have a governor who’s passionate about these issues if the rest of us are dragging our feet,” Caron said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]