December 26, 2010

The Baldacci Legacy: Economy tempered ambitions

While the governor achieved many of his goals, the state budget overshadowed almost everything he did.

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - Gov. John Baldacci's time in office has been marked -- some would say plagued -- by an economy in turmoil.

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Gov. John Baldacci greets legislators after his State of the State address in 2009 at the State House in Augusta. Rather than see the bad economy as a hindrance, Baldacci insists it enabled him to push through changes that, in a good economy, would not have been possible.

Associated Press file

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THIS IS the first of two installments examining the legacy of Gov. John Baldacci, who leaves office in January.

The Democrat inherited a $1.2 billion budget deficit when he took office in 2003.

As he leaves office next month after eight years, the gap will be approximately $800 million.

"When you think of the challenges of those eight years, and of getting out of bed every day and facing the wrath of a bad economy, he gets high marks for effort, accessibility and hope," said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Baldacci took office with the country still reeling from the dot-com bubble burst, and has more recently led the state through the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The trouble started immediately.

At the end of his first full day in office, Baldacci left his inaugural ball to hold a brief news conference to address the first major crisis of his governorship: Earlier in the day, Great Northern Paper Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, jeopardizing 1,100 jobs in northern Maine.

As a Bangor native with close ties to the community -- his family ran an Italian restaurant in town for decades -- he knew full well the impact of a mill closure.

"It made it personal because those people at Great Northern Paper Co. in Millinocket and East Millinocket went to Bangor to shop and eat at the restaurant," he said in a recent interview. "I knew it meant jobs at our restaurant, it meant jobs in the Bangor community. We're all tied together. It was personal."

Lee Umphrey, a friend of Baldacci's since the early 1990s, was one of the first people hired by the governor. After playing an advisory role in the transition, he became the governor's spokesman.

"During the transition, we found out increasingly the state budget situation was worse than we anticipated," said Umphrey, who left the administration in 2006. "We had that huge emphasis already focusing the new administration, and you throw on the Millinocket mill closing. For that part of the state, it was pretty devastating."

A day earlier, Baldacci had announced an ambitious agenda for his first year in office. He wanted to combine two large state agencies, provide universal health care, balance the state budget without raising taxes and transform the state's technical colleges into a community college system.

Yet while Baldacci did reach many of the goals set out in his initial address, nearly everything he did was overshadowed by the state budget.

Maine now has a vibrant, but overcrowded community college system that can't keep up with demands for enrollment or facilities.

The state Department of Health and Human Services was created by merging two agencies -- human services and the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services. Yet that department is under constant budget-cutting pressure.

Several times through the years, hundreds of people from various DHHS constituencies crowded the State House to protest cuts to programs that help those with mental illness, the elderly, the hard of hearing and those with brain injuries.

In 2008, liberal groups and church affiliates called for a tax increase in lieu of Baldacci's proposed cuts to human services.

Yet despite the pressure, Baldacci did not raise broad-based taxes.

"He was incredibly focused on ensuring the safety net and ensuring we met the commitment to education and also to not raising taxes," said Rebecca Wyke, Baldacci's first budget chief, who served from 2003 to 2008.

Wyke, who now works for the University of Maine System, said Baldacci was very involved early on in discussions about how to handle the budget. She described him as determined to find a way to continue to deliver services without caving to interest groups and fellow Democrats who often insisted a tax increase was the only way out.

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