An Interview with Gov. Baldacci

Photos and Article by Ramona du Houx

February 15th, 2009 

Governor John Baldacci of Maine speaks candidly about the future of the state and working with President Obama. He talks about upcoming budgets, energy policies, and how Maine can progress in the 21st century economy. Baldacci says that green energy technologies and innovative projects will create jobs, and cutting bureaucracy by merging agencies will help improve services for the people of Maine.

Q: Do you think President-elect Obama is capable of bringing the change he promised for America?

A: Our country and world are in extremely difficult conditions economically, and at the same time we are at war in different areas of the world. His style of leadership and his very aggressive outreach to all political quarters to unite our country, in terms of all the different politics that has gone on before him, so that we act as one, is very impressive and refreshing to me. You have to have an overall style of leadership that wants to embrace and unite to move the country and the world forward. He is that kind of leader. I have a lot of hope with him.

In terms of issues: he recognizes that in order to get our economy going again it’s not only about Wall Street, it’s about Main Street. We need to get people back to work and not just back to the kind of work that would build a bridge to nowhere.

We need innovative jobs that are sustainable for the long term. His interest in renewable energy, domestic energy independence, energy infrastructure issues and transmission, to see more electric and hybrid vehicles, and use natural and hydrogen gas, will create those jobs. He can unite the country to become independent from foreign energy sources. I think that will very greatly and enthusiastically be embraced.

In terms of being able to address the issues: His national election campaign included all 50 states. He won in the far West and in the South, which were traditionally Republican areas. There may have been a lot of people who were naysayers about his campaign; with the widespread voter registration and his insistence not to try and win at all costs. He wanted to win in a way that would unite the country. I think his policies will not only unite Maine, they will benefit the entire country. I think the ripples from this will go around the world. People look at us from nations around the world to see how we do things. They look to their future by what the United States is doing.

Q: His campaign did unite diverse people across the nation to work together. Will this approach work with Congress?

A: Congress will be the challenge. You have an institution that is resistant to change. They will have to embrace change or they better get out of the way and allow change to occur. People recognize we have a lot of serious troubles, and Congress will need to get things done that haven’t been done before. If they fall back to earmarks and take small incremental steps, dragging their feet, they won’t be realizing that we are at the bottom.
We need to change the way we do business, now. We need to become energy independent and get people back to work. We are no longer in an agrarian industrialized economy.

This is the information-technology-based economy. People need education and training, investment in research and development, and we need to get them connected to this global economy, so they can compete on a level playing field to be successful. If Congress doesn’t embrace that change agenda, then I think they should get out of the way and let the president move forward with what the people voted for him to initiate — which is this change in America. I don’t know if the institutions will be able to embrace it or if they will try and conform him to what they are doing. It’s very clear to me, with the discussions that I’ve had with him and his team, that they better embrace change. It’s not necessarily what he’s telling the country, but it’s what the country is telling him, and he intends to follow through.

President Barack Obama with Vice President Joe Biden. Obama is working with Governors to stimulate the economy and has talked extensively to Gov.Baldacci about issues.
President Barack Obama with Vice President Joe Biden. Obama is working with Governors to stimulate the economy and has talked extensively to Gov.Baldacci about issues.
Q: You’ve been streamlining government, going through budgets line by line, while making investments in innovation and education. Obama shares these goals on a national level. Is what Obama faces similar to what you faced in Maine when you came to office?

A: You try and do what is right for the state. Because what you are doing isn’t considered stock Democratic Party politics, there is a tendency for some not to embrace what you are trying to achieve. And some Republicans, even though they agree with what you are doing, don’t accept it because it’s coming from a Democratic governor. I would not like to see that happen to President-elect Obama, because he is trying to unite the country. He’s trying to get people to work together and incorporate conservative and liberal thinking to challenges that we face. It may not be unanimous, there may not be overwhelming consensuses, but there should be bipartisan support for those kinds of approaches. I would hate to see the political parties opposite the president-elect not participate. I want him to get the full measure of the support he should have.

Q: Since you’ve been governor, there have been a number of energy initiatives; you’ve helped innovation with research and development funds, businesses with Pine Tree Zones, and established Dirigo Health. Obama has said that he wants to incorporate the best ideas of practices that are working into his agenda. Is he looking at Maine?

A: I’m encouraged by what he’s trying to do. We’ve sent in the paperwork on Maine’s wind energy potential, the energy corridor with Canada, what we’ve done with state employees and small businesses, the kind of work we’re doing now with weatherization, conservation, and transportation to his transition team.

I’ve heard that former Senator Tom Daschle, who will head up Health and Human Services, is talking about a lot of what Dirigo Health’s been working on, with cost, quality, and access, and that you have to recognize all three of those. What we’ve done on health care will also be put in a package and sent to his transition team.

Governor Baldacci swears in the 124th Legislature of Maine
Governor Baldacci swears in the 124th Legislature of Maine
Q: With going green and green technologies, isn’t Maine taking important steps forward?

A: We were the first state to purchase all renewable energy for state buildings; we purchased hybrids, increased van and car pools, have alternative work schedules, and instituted more telecommuting. There’s a lot of money that can be saved for taxpayers, and pollution that can be eliminated.

We now have companies that are building energy-efficient heat pumps; there is research going on at UM in geothermal, wind blades, offshore wind technology systems, ethanol, and wood pellets. There are a lot of things that we have been able to spur, to create economic development, which leads to good jobs for the people of Maine.

Q: You’ve taken an innovative approach to growing clusters in Maine. Could Maine be viewed as a model for the nation?

A: There is a good article in December Fortune Magazine, which advised the president-elect on how to get America more involved in world trade and look at what states like Maine are doing. They showcased how we organized the boatbuilding cluster for growth. They said: look what Maine has done, it’s clustered its strength together; it’s added research and development, and now it’s competing in the Shanghai boat show in China. States have to think like that more.

Clusters are where our strengths are naturally. Targeting economic help where our strengths are, in these clusters, boosts growth in those established areas. Leaders need to ask how they can add value to them, how they can support them while strengthening them, so they will create jobs and economies.

I think there are tremendous opportunities to build on our natural strengths and add value to our economy, creating jobs in our state.
There are a lot of things that can be gained on a national level from what we have done.

Q: Will there be more consolidation efforts announced?

A: When you look at the Brookings Report or at independent analysis that has come forward from the National Council of State Legislators, you can see where Maine stands out. They broke down the different regions of the country comparing how many people work on highways, services, and administrative positions. It’s clear, from this research, that Maine has much more administration per population than other states.

There is an administration for local government; we have over 300 administrations. We had over 252 school administration districts; we have the 16 counties that run their own administrations; state government has its own administration; then we have federal partners in the state working in small business administration, farm programs, and others. Not counting the federal people, just looking at the local school, municipalities, county, and state government, there is just too much administration.

When you are facing a budget shortfall, you cannot raise taxes because people are fed up with taxes, and you have a responsibility to abide by the law to balance the budget, it narrows the playing field. The only way I can see to continue to protect people’s healthcare and educational programs is to cut back on administration.

Take economic development teams: People in the Department of Economic and Community Development don’t need to be in rooms with people from county development, local town economic development, and federal economic development. Can’t we provide some of the resources and vision without being on top of everybody else’s back?

We have to ask: does the state really need four natural resources agencies?
There will be new proposals for the Legislature to review that can mitigate the biennial budget’s cuts that I have to put forward.
We need to be able to make the changes and sacrifices that will help the state now as well as 22 years from now.

Q: Some of those sacrifices with consolidation efforts, according to the Brookings Report, are needed and necessary for the state to be competitive and, in the long run, will make the state stronger. Would you agree?

A: I think it will actually give better services. If the right hand and the left hand are actually connected, they won’t be passing the buck. If we flatten administration at all levels, I think government at all levels will be easier, more nimble, and better able to respond. And workers will understand better the complications, difficulties and challenges of what people are going through.

We successfully merged the Department of Human Services with the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services. One was approving programs and initiatives while the other paid for them. All too often a family would get approval from one but wouldn’t get assistance from the other. So people who needed the services the most were getting lost in the cracks, and that’s was not right.

By bringing the departments and agencies together, we eliminated commissioners, deputy commissioners, and other high-level salaries. Then the new agency realized they had to live with each other and work together. In the end, the people and families that they dealt with got what they needed and higher quality services.

It’s been a good outcome; we have fewer administration positions, saving millions of dollars every year, and most importantly it has helped individuals and families get the connections they need to get the care that they need. It works.

When you do these things, you end up with a structure that gives people better-quality services for businesses to do business, for families, and children. It benefits people by enhancing the quality of the service they need.

Q: So, isn’t this getting rid of the governmental bureaucracy people complain about?

A: Yes, but it’s a hard process, for some people don’t see they are inside a bureaucracy. When you do realize that you have to make difficult decisions, it’s hard to do. And we would rather not have to do it. It’s easier to say, ‘There is fat in someone else’s department, so you should cut over there.’ My dad used to say, ‘When you have one finger pointing over there, there are three pointing back at you.’ We all need to see what changes we need to make to better serve people and businesses, which will better serve the future of the state.

Q: And school consolidation?

A: I’ve had numerous principals of schools come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to retire in a few years; it was the right thing to do.’ They are saying it now, after the public hearings when we were roasted. But that’s what happens. Commissioner Genderon did the research. People were concerned about the loss of local control, but that’s not what happens. What they will be losing is the excess administration part of local government.

The pay scale in these administration positions is going through the roof; we simply can’t afford to pay for all of it, and we shouldn’t because at the same time we want every child to receive a world-class education. We need to make sure we are protecting their educations, not the salaries of administrators.

Q: There are 41 states experiencing budget shortfalls. How will you balance budgets?

A: There are three steps in this process: the curtailment, the ’09 supplemental budget, and the 2010-2011 biennial budget. We must act as swiftly as possible on the supplemental budget for the savings to accrue.
There are only two ways of balancing budgets after six years of cuts: you raise the fees and taxes or you cut the programs. You do one or the other or you do both. The law requires a balanced budget. I’m going to try and get through this in a way that protects our public health and safety; the state police and the services that they provide are essential and so are our education services, even though it’s a billion of the budget. I am going to make sure we don’t end up ruining future opportunities for our children. We are going to give our children the education they need for this 21st-century global economy. We will take care of core responsibilities to our children, our natural resources, and the most vulnerable in society.

The biennial budget will have a lot of difficult cuts; at the same time I’ll be putting in a separate piece of legislation that allows for government reorganization. I want people to have an opportunity to realize we could mitigate those cuts if we embrace reorganization and structural change of governmental administration. There will be an opportunity to change the way we are doing things.

There will also be an energy package, some healthcare work, tax reform and tax relief.

It’s incumbent upon us to address those four issues. People are expecting us to get this work done. My hope is to get bipartisan support for the initiatives we will be working on. We need to work together, taking into consideration everyone’s viewpoints.

Q: When you put together the package and other initiatives, do you expect help from the Federal government?

A: Hopefully, yes. We will be watching with interest what comes out of Washington in the stimulus package. I am encouraged by the talks I’ve had with the president-elect. We expect some help will be for the ’010-’011 biennial budget which we will amend, as part of the budget process. It should help us mitigate some cuts.