As local consumers and voters, we have gladly accepted money sent to us from Washington and Augusta. Grants for local capital projects, new equipment and social programs have been paid for with voter approval, often because of generous matching funds from some other level of government.

We routinely add to our operating costs and cheer when our congressional delegation delivers earmarked funds for special projects without ever casting a vote.

We now have reached an era of limits by our own doing. The only light in the tunnel is a debt-laden freight train, and it is heading our way.

The nation’s debt is now more than $61.9 trillion, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (www.pgpf.org) — $200,000 for every resident of the United States as of March. The figure is based on unfunded obligations passed by Congress or those that have been paid for by borrowing. Without policy changes, the debt will rise by at least $2 trillion every year, an additional $6,500 per resident.

The foundation polled “senior economic officials from the last eight administrations and congressional leaders from the past 30 years” and found that 88 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats believe another major financial crisis will hit the United States in the next 10 years if no action is taken.

More than two-thirds of those polled also believe that a combination of spending cuts and tax increases is the inevitable answer.

Some of that has happened here in Maine. The Legislature and the governor last month passed a two-year budget that cut state aid to education and municipalities by a total of $211 million, according to the Maine Municipal Association.

Those costs, however, did not go away. They were passed to towns and school districts, and those officials now are making tough decisions about program cuts, layoffs and higher property taxes. They cannot pass the buck.

To his credit, Gov. John Baldacci proposed, the Legislature enacted and voters affirmed a school consolidation law that forced many districts to merge, with the goal of saving money.

Consolidation of government functions is imperative. Redundancy in administration, teacher compensation and low student-to-teacher ratios have caught the attention of taxpayers and policymakers.

Communities are assessing how much they value classroom instruction, sports programs and extracurricular activities. Teacher contracts are being scrutinized, and passage of higher wages and benefits is far from a certainty.

On the municipal side, towns are beginning to share police, fire, emergency dispatch and public works functions in an effort to realize efficiencies while maintaining services.

Backroom operations, such as finance, human resources, permits and purchasing, also are being consolidated.

It all makes sense, as long as we don’t lose control over the spending.

So why not consolidate state governments? What would happen if the three states of northern New England were combined? Welcome to New Mainemont:

Population: 3.2 million people (near the national median).

Size: 49,080 beautiful square miles.

Gross state product: $150 billion (also near the national median).

In merging three states, we could adopt the best practices of each. We could cut the cost of government: one governor’s office, one Senate and one House of Representatives, elimination of redundant departments and one computer system.

If we adopted Maine’s model of 35 senators and 151 members of the House, there would be 54 fewer state senators and 550 fewer state representatives.

If we adopted New Hampshire’s legislator compensation of $200 for two years of service, we’d save about $23 million per year, not counting benefits, staff and expenses. New Hampshire also limits its annual sessions to 45 legislative days, which would minimize extraneous proposals and focus work on shared priorities.

The three states are similar in character: rural, sparsely populated and truly beautiful. Each is rated as being in the top 12 for being smart, and in the top five for being safe and healthy.

If the three combined their tourism and economic development budgets, our collective voices could be heard across the nation and around the world as vacation and business relocation destinations. In addition, we could negotiate for lower electricity rates with Hydro Quebec.

The point of this notion is simple: We can no longer afford to conduct business as usual and should seriously look for ways to pool resources and consolidate services across state borders. It is not an unrealistic objective and may blunt the impact of the freight train before it hits us head on.

What do you think, and what are you willing to do about it?

 

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on the effects of public policy on the state’s economy. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]