Congratulations to Gov.-elect Paul LePage and the members of the incoming 125th Maine Legislature. It now is time to put politics behind us and turn our attention to policy.

Once the Legislature convenes, the work of the next six months will likely set the course and tone of our civic dialogue for the better part of a decade.

More than ever, the public will be watching and engaged. The voters put a lot of new players on the field and they expect to see points put on the scoreboard – not for partisan benefit, but for shared prosperity.

Given the size and scope of government, it is possible to do many things at the same time, but doing a few things well is the prescription for the times in which we live. Visibly setting priorities from the outset will have both real and symbolic meaning.

Demonstrating to Maine businesses that state government is going to make it safe and easy to invest in expansion is the most important message right now.

The other message that both the governor-elect and new Legislature must send is that they will set clear priorities for reforming government. While understanding that there will be differences, we all would be grateful to hear those messages delivered with a unified voice from Republicans, Democrats and independents.

If the common enemy is poverty, we should agree the solution is a healthy private sector with full employment.

Here are four priority areas for policy changes prompted by two recent reports, Reinventing Maine Government (www.envisionmaine.org) and Maine’s Investment Imperative II (www.mdf.org).
These topics rise to the head of the to-do list because that’s where the money is. Their resolution will directly impact the speed, strength and duration of Maine’s economic recovery.

Expedite business expansion and attraction.

Improving Maine’s business climate requires many complementary changes to grow employment opportunities. No single big business is coming to plop down its corporate headquarters or announce a tripling of its workforce. Growth will have to come a few jobs at a time from all sectors of the economy.

Government must begin to say, “How can we help?” rather than, “We’ll get back to you with more questions.” Fast-track permitting, making decisions and minimizing reports are among the right signals. And it can happen quickly without compromising quality.

The faster businesses can add jobs and raise wages, the more revenue will be realized to pay for essential government spending, debt reduction and charitable works.

•  Resolve the state’s pension liability.

The taxpayers of Maine are on the hook for nearly $4.4 billion to adequately fund pension obligations for state employees and teachers. The pension fund has too little money in it and must be fully funded by 2028.

We must restructure the debt by amending the state Constitution, fund lump-sum payouts to the pensioners – or break the contract that was negotiated in good faith. The alternatives are to shut down entire functions of state government or raise taxes.

•  Normalize education funding.

Compared with most other states, Maine spends too much to educate kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

Our outlier status can be remedied with more students per classroom, fewer non-teaching personnel, competitive bidding for insurance costs, further consolidation of administration and a change in compensation incentives.

Because state tax dollars pick up more than 40 percent of the tab, Augusta policymakers should have a say about many of these fundamental expenditures.

In higher education, more resources are needed that complement the needs of Maine employers.
 In addition to wringing out non-instructional costs and redundancy, our university and community college campuses must not be treated equally when it comes to funding.

It is time to put our money to work where employment opportunities exist. Making swift but well-informed decisions about administration, campus locations and consolidation will serve the greatest good.

Doing so in the earliest days of a new administration will prevent the issue from festering or being dragged out for four years in anticipation of another election.

•  Reform welfare.

The incoming governor has pledged to transform Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services into a career counseling organization focused on helping people to find jobs so they can support themselves and their families.

This transformation will take years in the complex world of federal funding and entrenched behaviors, but it can begin with thorough analysis and a steady eye on the desired outcome.

Fortunately, LePage has experience in managing large, complex organizations that require change. With this new governor, we have a chance for a strong executive branch to work in concert with the legislative branch in attacking these top priorities.

The voters rejected the status quo. State policies now should reflect both their sense of urgency and the mandate for change.

What do you think and what are you going to do about it?

Tony Payne is a lifelong resident of Maine who is active in business, civic and political affairs. He may be reached at: [email protected]