April 4, 2010

Payne: Confronting stubborn facts in public arena

"Figures lie and liars figure" is an old saying used to undercut an opponent's line of reasoning.

Editor's note: Today the Maine Sunday Telegram welcomes Tony Payne as a regular columnist.

Attacking or maligning an opponent or his data often deflects attention from the real problem at hand. It's not a particularly constructive tactic, though it can be effective.

For example, when Sarah Palin popularized the notion that "death panels" would be an outcome of health reform, it momentarily distracted the media and much of the nation from the stubborn fact that we could no longer sustain double-digit increases in health care premiums.

Whether the law passed by a slim majority of Congress will produce lower costs and better quality care is yet to be determined.

As Maine is the focus of this new column, readers will be exposed to a variety of stubborn facts about our state's economy and its relative standing in the nation and world, and to ideas about the things we should do more often and more effectively as well as the things we should stop doing.

To understand my perspective, let me share a few of my biases and some life experiences from my business and civic life. First, I consider myself to be a militant moderate and an unabashed champion of reasonably regulated free enterprise.

A healthy private sector is the wellspring of an expanding economy, the source of financial security and the foundation of our quality of life. Without a robust, tax-paying private sector, the missions of state and local government would be difficult to fulfill.

I know. I'm also a town councilor in the middle of budget season.

One of my first jobs after college was working for Ram & Co., the enterprise responsible for much of the revitalization of Portland's Old Port district.

Those building renovations were made possible through private investment and the historic preservation tax credit -- public policy encouraging private risk-taking. It was a forceful lesson in seeing minimal government involvement producing a public good from voluntary private enterprise.

I later joined a Portland advertising agency but lost my job in the recession of 1981. The following week, I opened my own agency in the living room of my apartment.

In six months, my business became so incredibly successful that I moved from the living room into the dining room. Eventually, we moved to a small office in Portland and opened another in Auburn.

Just as my business had been born of a recession, so, too, came its end. With the recession of 1991, we could almost hear the checkbooks of our clients snap shut as they braced for leaner times. We did what was necessary to save our business, selling one office and downsizing the agency from 16 to five employees. It was hard, but it worked.

The following year, I sold the remainder of the business and ran for the Republican nomination for Maine's 1st Congressional District. My aspirations to serve in Congress came up short against an opponent who exploited a wedge issue that still divides the country: sustaining entitlement programs, specifically Social Security and Medicare.

I believed that all government spending, including entitlements, was fair game in controlling federal spending. The voters disagreed, and I lost.

Two years later, Newt Gingrich of Georgia led the nation's Republican candidates to a majority in Congress by candidly confronting the stubborn facts of the nation's economy and runaway federal spending.

In concert with President Clinton, Republicans and Democrats pared back entitlement programs and brought the nation's budget into a surplus position.

Unfortunately, that period of hard, honest, civil negotiating seems a faint memory. Today, it is arrogance confronting obstructionism and, unfortunately, the spending is back to full strength.

(Continued on page 2)

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