As an exercise in civic virtue, I set myself the task of reading the economic development plans of each of the state’s gubernatorial candidates.

The immediate effect was a reminder of the old English nursery rhyme “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

They’re all in favor of lots of good things. What’s not to like? But beneath the wishes, what do their plans say about the candidates? Are their plans and campaigns merely collections of platitudes, or do they reveal something deeper about their authors, about what we might get as a governor?

Like much of the rest of his campaign, Paul LePage’s economic development strategy presents a certain duality. On the one hand, he has said that he would like to see tourism become Maine’s fourth-largest industry by increasing forestry, farming and fishing to numbers one, two and three.

As readers of this column know, Maine’s natural resource-based industries have no stronger champion than me, but the idea that they can surpass tourism in sales and employment is simply silly.

It betrays a failure to understand either their history or their current prospects for growth. It is pure sentimentality — perhaps naive, perhaps cynical — but certainly unrealistic.

On the other hand, point two of LePage’s four-point development plan — “get people the skills they need to be successful” — squarely and insightfully addresses Maine’s most serious economic challenge — restructuring, redirecting and holding accountable our enormous and exceedingly expensive educational bureaucracy.

LePage is absolutely correct in saying that all Maine workers do not need a college degree. They do, however, desperately need skills, experience and attitudes they are not now getting.

His plan to produce a “results inventory” for educational programs and to make “price and student outcomes” data readily available to students and their families is sorely needed.

His “Learn to Earn Report Card” could, if rigorously implemented over an extended period of time, become a force for revolutionizing education in Maine.

His ideas for linking high schools more closely with both institutions of higher learning and employment opportunities could shake up institutions that have spent generations resisting change.

His plan to “bridge the gap between employers and the workers they need” through outreach programs “available to all Maine’s industries” is as realistic and necessary as his pipedream of returning forestry to the glory days of the 1960s is unrealistic.

Transforming his realistic wishes into the horses to ride Maine to a new prosperity won’t come cheap, either in money or, more importantly, in management resolve and political gumption.

So the central question facing voters considering Mr. LePage is, “Which one will we get — the loose cannon or the innovative public policy bulldog?”

With Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, there is no such personal disparity. What you see is what you get.

From the broad perspective, her economic development plan realistically acknowledges Maine’s position — we are in transition from traditional industries to new ones not yet fully identified.

From the narrow perspective, her plan offers six modest, specific, reasonable initiatives:

expand the seed capital program;

invest in green energy;

support local food producers;

increase management training for entrepreneurs;

create a rapid-response team to help businesses in trouble;

and invest in critical infrastructure and R&D.

Her education plan — expand pre-kindergarten services, provide a higher education grant for every qualified high school graduate, cut the dropout rate, raise public school standards — is equally reasonable and modest, though considerably less specific on exactly how these wishes will be turned into horses.

The central question facing voters considering Mitchell, therefore, is not who but what and how.

We must ask ourselves: Is the lifetime public servant, the master politician, the former House speaker and Senate president, the pragmatic budget compromiser, the courageous champion of civil rights, the person who can get things done, is she the person Maine needs as governor at this critical juncture in our economic history?

In sum, the real value of the economic development plans and campaign promises offered by these two candidates lies less in what they say about the economy and more in how they force us to think about the candidates themselves.

Next week: the independents.

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]