“The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

“While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.” 

They’re hardly children, but the special interests (both favored and unfavored) are clearly nestling into the capital, perhaps even the Blaine House, with visions of sugarplums (or stockings lumped with coal) as state government extends for another year Maine’s now hallowed model for economic development — Christmas morning.

I imagine a crowded room filled with bright, anticipating eyes (and many more following remotely via video connection) as the governor presides before a festive tree surrounded by brightly ribboned packages.

“Well, what have we here? It’s a new board of directors for the State Housing Authority! And look, for the mills up north, a nearly new railroad. And for you who’ve been spending a bit too much time around the punch bowl, no more free trips to the substance abuse treatment center. And for the citizens of Millinocket, a ‘get out of jail free’ card — we’ll take that toxic waste dump off your hands. And just to show that anything Greece can do we can do better, for all you pensioners out there, an exemption from our income tax.”

And as the snow doesn’t float gently from the sky on our unseasonably warm Christmas morning and the U.S. economy yawns expectantly and looks around while digesting news of growing retail sales, signs of new housing construction and a slowly declining unemployment rate, what does the Census Bureau bring us?

Tidings of little joy — an aging and stagnant population.

Since the April 1, 2010 census, the bureau estimates that Maine’s population has declined by 173 people. But for an estimated international immigration of 819 (talk about following the star) that loss would have been substantially greater.

And as for natural increase, Maine barely broke even — 76 more births over the period than deaths.

Only West Virginia — where the number of births amounted to only 95 percent of the number of deaths — ranked lower than Maine in natural increase among the 50 states.

While many of us may be celebrating nativity today, we certainly aren’t doing it by bringing more of our own into this little corner of the world.

And we don’t seem to be doing very well at keeping those who are here. Maine’s estimated domestic emigration of 1,000 amounted to 6 percent of our total births.

We’re certainly not in the straits that Rhode Island, New Jersey and Michigan find themselves — with domestic emigration exceeding 40 percent of births — but watching people move away is hardly the strategy for latching on to a nascent economic recovery.

So in the spirit of the day and Maine’s longstanding tradition of building its economic development strategy around special favors for special people, here is my request — presented with a bow to the memory of Harold Alfond.

How about we, the state of Maine, agree today to pay the full cost of two years of higher education at any accredited institution of higher learning in Maine (public or private) to which any person born in Maine during the remainder of this decade can gain admission?

Like all of the gifts noted above, this one is impulsive and blatantly unfair. It distorts rational comprehensive analysis by taking from all in unexamined ways and giving to a special few.

The only stated rationale is a “feel good” sense that is hard to dispute politically because the “winners” are so obvious and so deserving and the “losers” are so anonymous and dispersed.

But my proposed gift has one distinct advantage. Paying for railroads or pension exemptions, like shutting down substance abuse treatment centers, takes real money here and now — from my pocket to your mouth. That turns them into political battles.

Because my gift won’t cost anything for at least 18 years (well maybe 15 or 16 for a few geniuses), we can pay for it with funny money just like we do with Social Security. We can make promises today in expectation that people tomorrow will work to keep them.

And therein lies the key to the plan — the people who will pay the bill tomorrow aren’t here today.

The whole point of my offer is to attract people to start families — not necessarily careers, they can do that anywhere, but families — in Maine.

Once here, they’ll buy homes now going unsold, help fill schools now going underutilized, bring skills to fill jobs now going begging and, most importantly, feel a commitment to stay because we’ve made a commitment to them.

Yes, Governor, there is a Santa Claus. But he isn’t you. He’s all of us.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]