PORTLAND — State and local government costs Mainers $14.98 of every $100 they earn, ranking Maine sixth in the country, according to a report released Wednesday.

In  the report, co-produced by the nonprofit GrowSmart, nonprofit think-tank Envision Maine offered ways to cut government spending in hopes their ideas will become part of the debate in the governor’s race.

The bottom line? The group says it found $1 billion Maine could cut to reinvest in other areas.

“When you look at Maine spending on government, and compare us to the nation and other rural states, Maine spends over $1 billion more than those other states,” said Alan Caron, co-author and founder of Envision Maine. “That’s a huge amount of money.”

Maine spends too much on K-12 education, welfare and Medicaid, corrections, fire protection and the Legislature, according to the report. And it spends too little on higher education.

Envision Maine, founded in 2009, is a South Freeport-based group that was hired by GrowSmart Maine — another nonpartisan think-tank — to write the report, which was funded by donations from individuals and businesses such as Wright Express, Hussey Seating Co., J.S. McCarthy Printers and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Poliquin.

The report comes four years after GrowSmart Maine tried to drive the debate during the 2006 election with its “Charting Maine’s Future” report, which lawmakers, candidates and others often quoted in discussions about the state economy, quality of place and sprawl.

That report also recommended a deeper look at government functions, from the state level on down.

Caron, who left GrowSmart to focus on this report, spent more than two years examining spending on schools and state, county and municipal governments. He hired David Osborne, co-author of the New York Times best-seller “Reinventing Government” to help write the report.

Osborne said Wednesday that Maine is similar to many states currently struggling to balance budgets.

But beyond the current recession, Maine must be concerned with $4.4 billion in debt accumulating from the retirement system, escalating health care costs and an aging population, he said.

Most alarming to him were test scores from 2009 that showed only 37 percent of Maine’s eighth-graders tested as “proficient” in reading.

Maine taxpayers spend more than they should on K-12 education, but aren’t getting results, he said.

“In terms of Maine’s future, that is the worst statistic in the report,” he said. “The quality of your work force is the most important determinant of your future economic growth.”

In other areas, the report calls for reducing the size of the Legislature and limiting the number of bills that can be submitted. Both ideas have been rejected in recent years by lawmakers.

Also, the report says the state should cut the number of counties from 16 to eight, and should create one board of trustees to oversee the university and community college systems.

Osborne said growing economies across the country — in Massachusetts, North Carolina, California and Texas — rely on “a technology university” to anchor growth.

“Maine doesn’t have a great technology university,” he said. “You underinvest in public higher education, you don’t have a great private technology university, and it leaves you out of a lot of the modern economy.”

For their part, most candidates said they liked at least some parts of the report.

Those contacted said that, once they’ve had more time to digest it, it would likely become part of the debate leading up to the Nov. 2 election.

“It’s just absolutely what we’ve been standing for,” said Paul LePage, the Republican nominee. “I really think there’s tremendous opportunities, and that’s what we’re all about — finding where the fat is.”

A spokesman for Democrat Libby Mitchell said she, too, has an interest in making government more effective and efficient.

“The report has many of the same goals that Libby would have as governor,” said David Loughran, who also noted that the campaign needed more time to examine the report in detail.

A spokesman for independent Eliot Cutler could not be reached for comment.

Independent Kevin Scott said he hadn’t yet read the report and independent Shawn Moody said that, at first blush, many of the ideas seem viable.

“We’re really excited about it,” Moody said. “We think it’s great. A lot of those bullet points are spot on.”

Caron said he expects some to criticize the report but hopes it sparks debate in the governor’s race and beyond.

He said budget-balancing tactics used in recent years by lawmakers, such as unpaid days off for state workers, won’t help in the future.

“We are way beyond tinkering,” Caron said. “We are way beyond furlough days, across-the-board cuts. We really have to get to some tough priorities.”

The report may be downloaded from the Envision Maine site.

Susan Cover — 620-7015
[email protected]


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