Whether you hate it or love it, government is something we can’t live without. It’s what makes a civil society possible.

We’re fortunate to have a democratic form of government but it obligates us to continually define its purpose, its scope and its cost. But it can’t be a spectator sport if we expect it to work.

The November edition of the Maine Townsman, the monthly magazine of the Maine Municipal Association, featured an article entitled “Local Government is Major Employer.” It celebrated the impact of local government as a stabilizing force in the state’s economy.

Municipal and county governments have become the third largest employment sector in Maine (61,600 employees) behind health care/social assistance (98,100) and retail (85,600). In some smaller communities, local government workers represent the largest segment of the workforce according to the article.

From 2000 through 2008, jobs in Maine’s private sector grew by 1 percent while positions in both state and local governments increased by 6 percent. During the same period, state government spending increased by 46 percent while our incomes grew by only 30 percent.

On the education side, a recent presentation by former Central Maine Power Co. President David Flanagan indicated that in the past 30 years, costs per student (kindergarten-12th grade) have risen 451 percent, though in the same period, enrollment in Maine schools has declined by 16 percent. Maine spends more than $13,500 per pupil while the national average is about $10,000. And while costs have climbed, Flanagan noted, our once top-performing test scores have slipped over the past ten years.

Maine economist Charles Colgan observed in the Townsman that “The school funding formula is bringing into the community a lot more money than what is generated by the property tax. That’s as important as a paper mill or military base.”

He’s right about the flow of money, but the comparison is faulty in the broader context of lasting prosperity. A paper mill takes a raw product and adds value through the manufacturing process. From forest to retailer, everyone is supposed to make a profit. Government, on the other hand, simply takes a tax dollar from one person and spends it on another for services the community deems valuable; education, transportation, public safety and health care to name a few. It does not create wealth though it is an important factor in enabling wealth creation.

Despite these growing costs paid through taxes, there are some who think we ought to raise taxes further. Kit St. John of the Center for Economic Policy believes that local government is not as stabilizing as it could be because municipalities are not allowed to engage in deficit spending. He laments in the Townsman that local governments have responded to the current recession by balancing budgets, laying off employees and curbing spending. He argues that such decisions “can completely mitigate the effects of the stimulus.”

How much more in taxes is enough for those like St. John who believe in bigger government and more spending? Is there no limit or is there a point at which you have to put the shovel down and stop digging a hole in people’s paychecks?

Gratefully, legislators and the governor are doing all they can to avoid raising state taxes. The vast majority of those cuts, however, are in state aid to local education and municipal revenue sharing. That means the real burden of this cost-cutting will be shifted to selectmen, town councils and school boards as they decide what they value most.

The challenge of doing as much as possible with as little as possible is daunting. State leaders are calling for towns and schools to consolidate services and local leaders are pushing back with the same challenge to state government. Everyone seems to agree that there are countless opportunities for savings as long as the cuts don’t unfairly impact one program more than another. Equity, however, should not be the goal. It is time to make strategic decisions about “wants” versus “needs”; between what works and what doesn’t. Then it is the job of our elected leaders, in the words of Edmund Muskie, to “explain, justify and persuade.”

Ultimately, voters have the power if they choose to use it. Will they tolerate fewer services or embrace higher taxes? Will they stay home, speak up or simply express themselves at the ballot box? School budget validation referendums and town warrants will be on local ballots this spring as will candidates for local and state offices. It will be interesting to see the decisions our citizens render.

It also will be interesting to see if government is allowed to return to business-as-usual once the economy recovers, or, if everyone employs their new talent for stretching a penny into a long thin copper wire to pay for only the services we deem strategically essential.

What do you think?

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Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future and a Falmouth resident and town councilor. His column is published biweekly, and he can be reached at [email protected]

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