Douglas Rooks

Douglas Rooks

Ready or not, the 2014 race for governor has begun. Democrats are talking about finding a highly qualified candidate this time. Eliot Cutler, second-place finisher last time, filed his financial paperwork and is making appearances.

And Gov. Paul LePage? He filed a year ago and, whatever his current standing with voters, everything we know about him suggests he’ll be all-in soon.

Cutler has come closest to actual campaigning. In Bangor, he said Maine needs an economic plan and better jobs. Yes it does. But candidates for governor have said this, unanimously, for 30 years.

Perhaps it’s time to be honest and admit that, on its own, state government has a relatively small impact on the Maine economy. In short, this is not the federal government.

The feds not only control the money supply, a really big deal, but, in fiscal terms, can run deficits or surpluses to counter economic ups and downs. The budget deficits over the last four years — now declining — are one major reason we didn’t slide into another Great Depression.

State government has no such tools. Under its constitution, Maine’s budget must be balanced every year. And in terms of revenue per capita, state government pales in comparison with taxes raised to support federal programs.

Yes, state government can be professionally managed and fiscally sound. It can provide tax breaks and fund job creation efforts and, at the margins, make life easier or harder for businesses. That’s about it. It’s hardly make or break.

So it would be refreshing to hear candidates talk about what else they might do to make life better for Mainers.

One perennially neglected topic is improving government. Here as some ideas only governors can tackle.

Here’s one problem: Maine has fewer statewide offices than any other state, so we have no proving ground for governor. As a result, people with little or no political experience get elected. With Angus King, we got lucky. With Paul LePage, not so much.

The Legislature, uniquely, elects the attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state. Elsewhere, some or all of these officials are chosen by the people. It would take a constitutional amendment, and only a governor elected on such a platform could pull it off. A century after legislatures lost the power to choose U.S. senators, isn’t it time we let the people decide?

A governor could also do yeoman service in curtailing legislative term limits. The autocratic ways of former House Speaker John Martin aside, there was never much reason for term limits on a citizen legislature. Most lawmakers serve one or two terms, and nearly all have a hard time putting together a career with a part-time salary.

The few willing to stick around for eight years shouldn’t be summarily retired, just when they’ve acquired enough knowledge and experience to capably run a committee. The six-year limit on leadership, however, already in the rules, should stay.

The Legislature half-heartedly put an extension to 12 years before the voters in 2007, then did nothing to convince them. A governor, however, could get the job done, in part because he or she has no self-interest involved.

The second Big Idea is health care reform. We already know Paul LePage “won’t life a finger” to implement the Affordable Care Act, another self-defeating proposition. Obamacare is here to stay, and it stands to benefit Maine.

We need our own health insurance exchange. And the extension of Medicaid to more Mainers, while those earning a bit more get federal subsidies for private insurance, is a no-brainer. The feds are paying the whole cost. In fact, because Maine earlier expanded Medicaid coverage, it’s among a handful of states that will get more federal aid than the program costs to administer.

But more is needed. Obamacare is weak on controlling costs because it caters to forprofit insurers and drug companies. In New England, Massachusetts implemented the Obamacare prototype, and Vermont’s committed to a singlepayer insurance system, without for-profits.

Maine once was an innovator, too. During the Brennan administration, hospital charges were regulated and, for a time, we had rates below the national average. Now, our hospital costs are far above other states.

Capping annual increases isn’t necessarily the best way to go but, with the American system costing 50 percent more than any other developed country, and twice as much as most, there’s plenty of room for efficiency. The next governor could create a new model.

There’s more, of course, but that’s a start. A candidate who talks about these issues will get my ear and, I suspect, that of many other Mainers, as well.

DOUGLAS ROOKS is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at [email protected]


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