A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Life in a Red State (It's Not All That Bad)

As you've probably heard, Maine's state government has been taken over by a new Republican majority in a major shift of power (here's the Bangor Daily News report on the statewide election results). So technically, we live in a red state now.

Some of you may be ready to apply for Canadian citizenship. Please don't. The truth is, compared to our local and federal governments, and the support networks of our friends, families, and neighbors, Maine's state government isn't all that important or powerful in most of our day-to-day lives - and a lot of Republicans are interested in making it even less powerful.

Now, this is not to say that state government programs aren't very important to a lot of people - to students, the elderly, the destitute, and the mentally ill, to name a few - but by most measures, the Democrats' government wasn't serving those people all that brilliantly these past few years.

I happen to have lived in a red state before - in Houston, Texas. Some Mainers are inclined to be snobs about Texas, and that's something I'm a bit ashamed of because there's a lot to admire about Houston. It's true there wasn't a good social safety net there. Instead, there were jobs (lots of them), a low cost of living, and abundant opportunities for poor people to earn their way into the middle class - three important, egalitarian quality-of-life measures Maine could definitely improve on. And as a result, Houston is an extremely vibrant, successful city where thousands of new immigrants choose to move, and succeed, every year.

Again, don't mistake me for saying that this is a perfect substitution - I'd like to have both a social safety net for the people who can't make their own living, and good economic opportunities for the rest. And I think that we can have both - but Maine's Democrats were failing to deliver.

In fact, the Democrats have neglected a lot of problems in Augusta for too long, and maybe now we have a chance to fix some of them. To start with, Maine's government agencies are quantifiably too bureaucratic and administratively top-heavy. There are too many clerks and lawyers and not enough teachers and mental health professionals. Democrats haven't been much interested in tackling these problems, but now that Republicans have an upper hand, they'd be wise to work proactively on them instead of digging down to play permanent defense.

And since I write a lot about transportation issues on this blog, I also think that we do have some good opportunities to advance a better transportation agenda in the context of fiscal austerity here at the state level.

Let's start with the Maine Turnpork Authority - now's a great time to paint a bright red bulls-eye on their proposed $35 million tollbooth in York, and save the money for something more productive. Like new ZOOM buses.

This will also be a good time to implement a "fix it first" policy - that is, instead of planning and studying new roads, which are engines for sprawl and increasing property taxes, force Maine's DOT to make a priority of fixing the roads and bridges we already have. Just imagine if every new highway that MDOT proposed had to come with a fiscal note for maintenance and cumulative energy costs...

We should also think about mailing lots of pink slips to the Maine DOT, where there are still way too many pork-barrel highway planners designing fantasy roadways. In Portland, where neighborhood groups are trying to narrow down and reconnect Franklin Street, the cost of a Phase II engineering study has more than doubled, and actual progress has ground to a halt, ever since MDOT took control of the planning process. It looks as though Augusta's planners are trying to secure their own employment for a few more years while other projects dry up around them, but unfortunately their bureaucratic top-heaviness threatens the swamp the enterprise altogether. Portland legislators should be part of a bipartisan agreement that it's better to spend our money on filling potholes than on filing unnecessary paperwork.

We also saw a lot of interest in the past election over energy issues - and while that was mainly focused on the price of electricity, the cost of transportation (particularly fuel costs) is just as, if not more burdensome for most businesses and households here.

So while a lot of hoped-for "green" policies do seem a lot less likely this morning, I do see still see lots of realistic opportunities to make improvements at the state level. Remember - truly sustainable government needs to be financially and economically sustainable as well. Some new people and new ideas in Augusta might just do some good.

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