March 10, 2010

In Maine, coalition sounds alarm on consequences of debt

DENNIS HOEY

— By

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From left, Stuart Butler of The Heritage Foundation, Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition and David Walker of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation discuss the impact of federal deficits Tuesday with the Press Herald/Telegram editorial board.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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“We’re not trying to spread gloom and doom. We are spreading alarm, like Paul Revere once did," said Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby.

Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — Americans should spend less, save more and start thinking about how the nation's mounting debt will affect their children's and grandchildren's quality of life.

That was the message delivered Tuesday by a panel of financial experts and members of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that has dedicated itself to educating the public about the consequences of federal budget deficits.

The panelists came to Maine this week as part of their ''Fiscal Wake-Up Tour,'' a national event organized by the coalition and aimed at cutting through partisan rhetoric and stimulating public debate on ways government can reduce spending.

Members met with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram editorial board Tuesday morning before traveling to the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, where they co-hosted a forum with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

About 200 people attended the forum and listened to the panel discuss ways to reduce the deficit -- on the same day the Obama administration predicted a skyrocketing 10-year federal deficit of $9 trillion.

Kennebunkport police said another 100 people assembled outside the Ocean Avenue resort, carrying signs and joining in a rally to voice their support for health care reform. That topic was mentioned during the discussion, but was not the focus.

The panelists included David M. Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general, who described himself as politically independent. He is currently president and chief executive officer of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in New York.

''There is a tsunami of debt out there that could swamp our ship of state,'' Walker warned.

Panelists said the first step toward solving the national debt problem is to form a Fiscal Future Commission, a group independent of Washington politicians that could use the Internet and other means of interaction with the public to recommend solutions.

Another panelist, Stuart M. Butler, vice president of domestic and economic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, called for a mandatory 401(k) plan for U.S. workers and for the retirement age to be raised.

Butler and his colleagues on the panel said the nation's entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, are unsustainable, and that their costs need to be brought under control.

Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, told the audience that the fiscal problems his group is talking about are not new. He noted that Fiscal Wake-Up Tours started in 2005.

''These (programs) have been running on autopilot,'' Bixby said. ''We're not trying to spread gloom and doom. We are spreading alarm, like Paul Revere once did.''

Whether Congress will act remains to be seen.

But as Bixby observed, ''This isn't a numbers issue. It's a moral issue about the legacy we are leaving for the next generation.''

The panel's fourth member, Will Marshall, is president of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. He is also a Democrat.

Marshall said President Obama is finishing the first act of a two-act play, with the first act being his response to the recession. The second act will be to restore the nation's financial stability.

After the country recovers from the recession, Marshall said, ''We will have to go from being a bailout nation to a thrift nation.''

Collins praised the Concord Coalition for its efforts to engage the public in the debate over fiscal responsibility, noting that it emphasizes an old-fashioned ideal when it comes to reducing government debt: common sense.

Marshall told the Press Herald's editorial board that the country has to undergo a cultural shift in order to effect change.

''We are over-leveraged as a nation. We spend too much and we save too little,'' he said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

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