LePage: Maine is hurting and government alone can’t ‘fight despair’

Good morning from Augusta, where Tuesday’s summerlike temps and a stuffy Blaine House meeting room were the setting for a sobering discussion about Maine’s coming demographic winter.

By “sobering,” I mean depressing. Anyone who has heard much about the fiscal, social and familial challenges that Maine faces as our population ages or moves to better jobs in other states would agree.

As baby boomers gray, the ripple effects will move in every direction in Maine, which as we know has one of the oldest per-capita populations in the country: fewer people to fill jobs, fewer people paying taxes, more people in nursing homes driving up Medicaid costs, near-highest-in-the-nation suicide and drug overdose rates and their terrible costs, infant mortality rates that are leveling or headed upwards, a surge in drug-addicted newborns, and life expectancy for white males turning downward. The list goes on.

According to the Family Prosperity Index, a new study put together by the American Conservative Union Foundation at the hands of J. Scott Moody and Wendy Warcholik — a married couple who are familiar faces in Maine — the state’s troubles culminate in a culture of despair that creates a headwind to prosperity and needles its way into virtually everything. Here’s how Moody, former director of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, put it on Tuesday for the gathering of mostly Republican lawmakers, including Gov. Paul LePage:

“Economists think that a lot of people have given up on the American dream, in essence. We can see it right here in Maine when you look at Rumford, Skowhegan and Millinocket. If you were told about the American dream as a child and you grow up and see what has happened to your town in just 20 years, it’s hard to believe the American dream is still alive. … The American dream has been a distinctly American phenomenon. This could be the dark side of that mantra.”

Part of Moody’s premise is that’s the culprit behind factors like rising suicide and addiction rates. The Family Prosperity Index quantifies those factors — economics, demographics, family self-sufficiency, family structure, family culture, and family health — for each state and Maine ranks 39th in the nation. LePage said at the end of the presentation that the despair is reaching into Maine’s corporate culture. He said the state will lose some “really high-paying jobs” this year and mentioned Aroostook, Franklin and Cumberland counties as the sites.

“The real issue is what’s the cost of despair and how do we fight despair?” said LePage. “Whether it’s done from the religious side, or the community side or by the nonprofits, it’s not going to be done in government. What government can do is create the environment for prosperity. The environment for prosperity means you don’t tax everyone out of state. You make it so they want to come to your state.”

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to confront Maine’s demographic winter problem. In 2013, then-Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick launched a lengthy study of the problem that found in addition to increasing the birth rate in Maine, at least 60,000 people will need to move into the state within the next two decades or the economy is doomed.

In-migration to Maine has showed signs of increasing in 2014, but as noted just yesterday in the Daily Brief, it’s not happening nearly as fast as it needs to and the real problem is that more Mainers are dying than are being born. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • The board of the Land for Maine’s Future program is primed to make small changes to project criteria, with one affecting an under-the-microscope sugarbush. The program, which had $11.5 million held up by LePage in 2015, is getting ready to issue a new round of awards with up to $4.25 million in leftover bond money. One of the projects expected to apply is the Big Six Forest, a project that would give a $5.7 million conservation easement to Madison businessman Paul Fortin — a LePage donor — in exchange for preserving what is likely the nation’s largest maple sugarbush and other recreational land. At a Tuesday meeting in Augusta, the board rolled out a list of proposed changes to the point-based scoring criteria that moves it from a 239-point scale to a 140-point scale, adding five points for projects that feature conservation easements. But final criteria and any request for proposals won’t be finalized at least until next month. — Michael Shepherd
  • Maine’s ethics watchdog isn’t thrilled that a former Democratic lawmaker is lobbying, but it’s not illegal if his hours are what he says they are. A request for investigation to against former Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, now legislative and political director for the Maine AFL-CIO, will be considered by the Maine Ethics Commission on Tuesday. Republicans have alleged that Goode may be violating a 2013 law barring former lawmakers from lobbying the Legislature more than eight hours per month in the first year after their legislative service. Goode says he’s well under that threshold. In documents prepared for the meeting, the commission’s executive director, Jonathan Wayne, said that while his first reaction when he heard that Goode was lobbying was “disappointment,” the commission can only enforce the law on the books. He urged commissioners to weigh whether or not an investigation would turn up wrongdoing. But he also suggested changing law to bar all lobbying by former lawmakers in their first year out of office. — Michael Shepherd
  • And the commission may also consider fining two other Democrats — one a current legislator, one a former legislator. Wayne is recommending a $300 fine against Rep. Dillon Bates, D-Westbrook, after an investigation prompted in March found that he didn’t return Clean Election funds on time and that he commingled personal money with public money in his campaign bank account. However, Wayne says “there was no unfairness to his opponent or harm to the public,” because Bates spent far less than he was authorized to on his 2016 campaign. Also before the committee will be former state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, for whom Wayne is recommending a $300 fine for not reporting more than $16,000 in debt from her unsuccessful Maine Senate primary bid in 2016. — Michael Shepherd
  • Republicans in both chambers of the Legislature met Tuesday behind closed doors in Augusta. The party caucuses in the House of Representatives and Senate went off the State House campus for an evening meeting at the Governor Hill Mansion in Augusta. Both sides had been cagey on details around the meeting going back to last week, but Jim Cyr, a spokesman for Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, confirmed it yesterday, saying the caucuses were to “discuss the many issues before the Legislature this session.” The two caucuses have had an often frosty relationship going back to 2015 budget talks, when House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, blasted Thibodeau’s more moderate caucus for an initial budget deal with Democrats. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

It’s another busy committee day in Augusta. Here’s the full schedule. Some highlights include:

  • Yet another work session in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on six mining bills, an issue that is primed to be one of the highlights of the 2017 session. Committee co-chairman Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said votes on recommendations are close and could come today.
  • The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will get a 10:30 a.m. presentation from Maine Bureau of Veterans Services Director Adria Horn on the state’s plan to reduce veteran homelessness. They’ll also hold public hearings on three bills aimed at landlord-tenant law.
  • The labor committee will hold a public hearing on a bill from Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, to raise fines for wage and benefits violations and a work session on another bill from Rep. Paul Chace, R-Durham, aimed at increasing access to vaccines by allowing pharmacists to administer them to people age 11 and older, down from age 18 under current law.
  • The Taxation Committee will hold a work session on a bill from Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, that would lower excise taxes in Maine. — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Love stinks, but mechanical engineering was worse

J. Geils, leader and namesake for one of the first big Boston-area rock bands, died Tuesday at his home in Massachusetts. He was 71.

I saw the group play a few times during its rise from a local bar band to national prominence in the early 1970s. I once got pushed into a swimming pool at a show where Magic Dick, the band’s harmonica player, had shown up to watch James Montgomery and James Cotton play. But that’s not my strongest connection to the band.

Geils formed the band in 1968 while a mechanical engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the college where my father taught. I do believe my dad failed him in a physics class. It’s unclear whether Geils left WPI voluntarily or as a result of failing grades from professors like my father. In any case, he made a triumphant return on Valentine’s Day in 1971.

“For the record, it was one of the best performances of the J. Geils Blues Band ever. They tore the house down with three standing ovations. Magic Dick did the best “Whammer Jammer” ever heard at any time,” wrote Robert Rand, a 1972 WPI graduate and friend of the band.

That didn’t sway my father, a tuba player and classical music purist who had no use for rock or blues, which was Geils’ real love and forte.

“Bloodshot,” the 1973 album that propelled the band onto the national stage, was one of the first LPs that I owned. My dad came into the room once when I was playing it to ask who was making all the noise. I showed him the cover and he said something like, “Geez, if I had known I was going to have to listen to this, I would have figured out a way to keep him in school.”

Rest in peace, J. May all your angels be centerfolds. But here’s a much better soundtrack. — Robert Long

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Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.