”You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

– Peter Drucker

 

One of the major problems in trying to understand, let alone govern, Maine is that statewide measures don’t mean very much when applied to any specific time or place. Average annual temperature doesn’t come close to capturing the truth of either a frigid February morning or a balmy August afternoon. Average population or population density doesn’t convey anything meaningful about either Portland or Patten. The number of people in Maine means one thing when hotels, motels and B&Bs are jammed in August and quite another as the snow begins to melt and mud season arrives.

It’s easy for Sunday morning pundits like me to criticize our elected officials for failing to address whatever problem we choose to consider. But it’s enormously difficult for those officials to reach any agreement given the vast differences in the ways they experience, measure and thereby define these problems. It is extremely important, therefore, to recognize that uniform, one-size-fits-all, policy proposals are unlikely either to be adopted or to work.

We have struggled for years with the so-called “two Maines” problem – a southern, urban Maine and a northern, rural Maine. Some sticklers for detail say we really have three, five or even seven Maines and ought to design policies for each. Others say, “No, that’s divisive and defeatist; we are one Maine and must find policies to pull us together and spread prosperity for all.”

This problem of regional diversity and its consequences for public policy plays out most fiercely in the arenas of tax policy and public investment. The central fiscal issues facing the last Legislature were expansion of the Medicaid program (provision of federal and potentially state moneys to eligible low-income residents wherever they live) and continuation of the Maine Revenue Sharing program (provision of sales and income tax revenues – collected where the sales occur and the income is earned – and distributed to towns all over the state). The most interesting policy proposal to emerge from this year’s campaign for governor is Eliot Cutler’s idea to make the sales tax seasonal, so as to collect more revenue from our out-of-state summer visitors.

On the public investment side of the fiscal equation, the regional diversity question emerges most clearly in the struggle for investment funds for our transportation and Internet infrastructure. Each year the Department of Transportation struggles to allocate fuel tax revenues (that have steadily declined with rising vehicle fuel efficiency) between rural areas with declining traffic and urban areas with increasing traffic. Simultaneously, they must allocate these funds between road and bridge repair – intended to support increased use – and pedestrian and public transit programs – intended to reduce highway use thus extending their useful lives.

A similar investment debate rages with respect to our emerging digital highway. Many tout our Three Ring Binder optical fiber turnpike as the key to eliminating our traditional “end of the line” geographical disadvantage and spreading economic prosperity across all the Maines, however many there may be. Yet this digital turnpike is, by law, a wholesale provider only. It is only as useful as the number, location and capacities of the on- and off-ramps provided by retail service providers.

And here, yet again, arises the rub of regional disparities in population, employment and thus in demand for service. How are we to allocate the investment dollars? Who gets the road and bridge repair? Who gets the high-speed Internet connection? Who gets our health care dollars? Who gets our sales and income tax revenues?

The only responsible answer is payoff. What use of our public funds produces the greatest return for the state? And the answer to that question depends not on louder shouting or stronger arm twisting or better media spin, but on careful measurement and persuasive leadership.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]