Friday, March 7, 2014
According to the governor, the Legislature isn't going to get anything done next year, and since he plays some role in the process, he ought to know.
Congress doesn't look much better. Getting through the next two weeks without shutting down the government or defaulting on the nation's debts is probably the best we can expect.
But don't despair. The real action may not be in Augusta or Washington anyway.
Loose networks of local governments, business leaders and nonprofits are becoming the real drivers of the American economy and are better positioned to find solutions for real people's problems in housing, transportation and even global trade, according to Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institute.
In their book "The Metropolitan Revolution," they say that politics is more pragmatic than partisan on the local level and that people with a stake in the outcome make better decisions about complex matters than far-removed central governments. That gives municipal governments and private partners power to take on projects without waiting for the state and federal government to do it for them.
The best thing about this revolution is that it's not something that we have to wait for. It's happening, right here and now.
People in Maine like to paint Portland as an out-of-touch liberal haven, where the City Council worries more about legalizing pot and criminalizing plastic foam coffee cups than economic development. But it's also the hub of a metropolitan region (roughly Biddeford to Bath) that produces more than half of the state's economic activity, and the city is growing faster with a lower unemployment rate and a younger, more-educated workforce than the state's certified "business-friendly" communities.
As the federal government continues to hold itself hostage over fiscal policy and the state faces a long-term struggle with paying escalating health care costs for an aging population, it will be up to the metros, (including Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor and Rockland) to take the lead.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said that's how he sees his job.
"We want to take control of our economic future," Brennan said. "We don't want to follow the state and national economy. We want to do better than that."
To do that, the city is investing in infrastructure improvements designed to attract new residents and keep the old ones from moving away. The city will be stepping up its investment in road repair and sending voters a school construction bond next June to upgrade elementary schools that would otherwise languish on the state's priority list.
But it's not just limited to traditional investments.
• The Metro Coalition, made up of Portland, South Portland, Westorook, Falmouth and Scarborough, is studying ways to share fire and rescue resources.
• The Greater Portland Council of Governments is working to create the Southern Maine Transit Authority, which would put all public transportation in one organization with an eye on expansion.
• The Greater Portland Economic Development Company is marketing and promoting business in the metro area without regard to municipal borders.
• A task force made up of businesses and nonprofits has developed a strategy to combat homelessness that is already showing results. Using case management, rapid rehousing and permanent housing for chronically homeless people has resulted in fewer people sleeping in the city's shelters and on the streets.
• Portland Public Schools temporarily relocated the West School special education program to a building in Falmouth this fall. It may not have been the plan, but it shows how resources can be shared across town lines.
Other metros are going even further. Kansas City, Mo., is currently building a fiber-optic network that will make low-cost high-speed Internet available to almost all of its homes and businesses. A public-private network in northeastern Ohio provides support and access to capital for manufacturing companies.
This doesn't mean that the state and federal government are no longer relevant -- autonomous city states went out of style a few centuries ago.
The central government is still needed to pay for the biggest projects, like the port and rail improvements in the state transportation bond that will stimulate activity on Portland's waterfront.
But there are things being done on the local government and nongovernmental levels that can make a real impact on people's lives.
As we get ready for more than a year of buildup to the next state and federal election, it's nice to think that something might.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: