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 scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

Baldacci was also unlucky to have had two major economic downturns hit within his eight years in office, she said.

Wyke believes that only later will the public realize what Baldacci did to trim state spending, both by combining internal state functions and the more public consolidations that were often resisted at the local level.

"Maine is not a wealthy state," she said. "We have a love of local control that we can't afford. We want more than we can afford and are willing to pay for."

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.

"For a generation, they've been talking about too much administration," he said. "Too many school administrative districts, county jails are being operated independently from each other, the state has too much of a bureaucracy."

School districts, jails, police dispatch centers and some state functions such as finance, human resources and information technology were consolidated.

Lawmakers rejected proposals to merge the state's natural resource agencies and to combine the economic development department with state business regulators.

Former Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, said when it comes to the budget, Baldacci will be remembered as the "Democrat who wouldn't raise taxes."

But he believes the governor also lacked an overall vision.

"It's hard to say whether Baldacci had a big-picture image for the state," he said.

Baldacci, who got support from state workers to get elected, reduced the state work force by about 1,000. More recently, he instituted 20 unpaid days off for state workers, froze merit and longevity pay and required state workers to start paying a portion of their health insurance.

Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said that, as a boss, Baldacci was "tough but fair."

"MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 didn't always agree with him, but we respect him for his willingness to listen to us and his respect for Maine's collective bargaining laws," he said in an e-mail. "He was a tough negotiator, but that's his job as governor."

Baldacci, 55, comes from a family deeply involved in Democratic politics.

Following in his father's footsteps, he was elected to Bangor City Council at age 23. He served 12 years in the state Senate, then won election to the U.S. House of Representatives representing Maine's 2nd Congressional District.

In 2002, he wanted to return to his home state and successfully defeated three challengers to become the state's 73rd governor.

Umphrey credits Baldacci's experience in local, state and federal government for his ability to balance the budget without raising taxes. He surrounded himself with experienced state employees -- he hired former Department of Transportation official Jane Lincoln as his chief of staff and Wyke as his finance chief -- which enabled the new administration to get off to a fast start, Umphrey said.

"He paid his dues, and in today's environment, there's a tendency to frown upon government experience," said Umphrey, who now works for a nonprofit in New York City. "It's a wrong assumption. You need government experience to understand the best way to get things done."

Even with just a few weeks left in his term, Baldacci refuses to see the bad economic hand he was dealt as a negative.

But he acknowledges that he came to power at very difficult time.

"I used to tell people, if we weren't at the bottom when I started, you could at least see it from where we were standing," he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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