Gov. Baldacci on regional progress, the economy, energy, Obama and Maine's future
Photos and interview by Ramona du Houx
After returning from the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers held in Bar Harbor, Governor John Baldacci sat down to talk about the conference that he hosted and co-chaired, the importance of working regionally on economic issues, energy, avenues Maine should take for an improved economic future, and how a new president of the Untied States will impact Maine’s future.
Q: The world is increasingly becoming interconnected, as Friedman described in his books The World is Flat, and Hot, Flat and Overcrowded, would you agree? And if so, why is it important to work within the region?
A: Friedman is right on the mark in terms of us realizing the world’s becoming smaller and smaller — interconnected economically. We’ve got to know each other and get along better. We’ve got to focus on giving every person economic opportunities, around the world. People are not looking to go to war and fight each other; they are looking to provide for themselves, their families, and their future.
On the regional level, there are so many people in Maine that don’t have an opportunity to go outside to see what’s going on in neighboring states and other regions, to realize the great things that we have in Maine. At the same time we need to recognize we aren’t alone. We need to work together as a region. When we do, we are much stronger as a state, a country, and as a people.
Things in Maine always start at the local level; they bubble up, and working together, change takes place; then they begin to ripple to our neighbors. We are working with the New England states and the Eastern Canadian premiers to build some bridges on energy transmission, renewable energy, economic developments, and transportation issues. The conference was a good, strong one; it gives us the opportunity to work together to advantage Maine — to begin building these bridges.
We recognize that we have a lot of advantages, and they have a lot of advantages, and they match up nicely.
Q: With energy transmission?
A: In the energy area, their peak is in wintertime, and our peak is in summertime, so they are looking for places to distribute their power when they don’t have peak. We can establish long-term beneficial relationships and feed the electricity into our transmission networks to help our businesses and homeowners with stable electrical rates.
There is so much potential for more wind energy and other alternative sources coming through the electricity transmission lines; we could eventually heat our homes and start our cars with electricity.
We are going to look at more electricity driven heat. Now, with the high price of oil, electric heat and oil costs are pretty close.
Most estimates are projecting that our electricity use will triple — we are going to need a wide range of electricity sources. There is a really good opportunity there for all of us.
Q: At the conference it was agreed transmission lines need work.(the map shows energy projects)
A: You’ve got two or three billion dollars in transmission lines that either need to be built or rebuilt just in the Northeastern corridor, let alone getting existing wind power in the Midwest and West to the urban markets.
Eisenhower started the national interstate highway system. We need a modern-day "interstate highway system" of transmission lines. I talked to Governor Rendell about undertaking this idea on the Federal level. I said, "look at the transmission lines, the fiber-optics network, which needs to be established nationally." Thousands of people will be put to work; educational institutes will be going into overdrive, trying to get people trained and certified and out the door to start building this new system.
Q: Wasn’t the conference all about economic development?
A: Yes, and energy was a major focus, because it is taking a huge slice out of people’s wallets, and savings. We’ve had mills that have temporarily closed, because they run 100 percent on oil. We’ve had businesses go out of businesses, relocate, or some have to restructure, because of the high cost of oil or gas, along with the difficulties of transportation. A lot of the slowdown in our economy has been because of the large piece that energy plays.
In Maine we’ve got to get off of oil; we are the most oil-dependent state in the county. We’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done; it won’t get done overnight, but we have to start now.
Q: Will the energy crisis help create green-collar jobs?
A: Yes, there are so many projects. There is a two-billion-dollar project focused on the Wiscasset River, and then there are the electricity transmission lines that need to be built.
We have a tremendous opportunity to help grow our economy with green jobs, manufacturing windmill blades, component parts, geothermal heat pumps, and energy efficiency systems. We need more trained weatherization installers and contractors. We’ve got an opportunity to really build these green-industry jobs, grow the economy, conserve energy, and insulate four to five hundred thousand homes.
Weatherization and conservation, regardless of the energy source, is something we all need to do.
Q: Can we work without Washington?
A: We really can’t operate without Washington. Extending those tax credits for renewable energy was a good thing Congress recently did. A lot of those projects are tied to those tax credits.
We need the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the transmission lines. They tasked the regional ISO New England group to get this done — to show the economic analysis that exhibits the economic benefit to New England ratepayers for paying for the transmission lines to be connected. We are not an island onto ourselves.
Congress is also going to dedicate $25 billion in loan programs to help GM get into the electric car businesses, help renewables and natural gas. All those issue will help jumpstart industries and get them where they ought to be.
There are a lot of things that can get done, and we are working with the region to do them. We are a lot stronger working together. When we go to Washington, DC, and we have six governors and five premiers as one voice talking about weight limits and energy transmission issues, we are stronger. We all realize we are stronger, working together.
Q: So, you’re a power block?
A: Yes, I believe so. When I met with the Western governors at our National Governors’ meeting, they had their own sources of energy, with coal, natural gas, and some wind. It’s nice to know that in the Northeast we have energy solutions that make sense for our region and that we are all part of this great country.
Q: How far can we move on our own?
A: The RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) action took an effort. It is the first of its kind to curb greenhouses gases in America, with ten states working together. The tax-and-cap program made a lot of sense to us, and the first auction has taken place successfully. When we put it together, we had to do it without the federal government’s help.
Now, both presidential candidates understand climate change is an issue. Both parties want to address it — which was not what was there six or seven years ago. Then the Bush administration was fighting the science, fighting the reality. Now, you have recognition that is a real issue. Frankly, it’s an economic development issue. We need to do more here, putting the factory workers back to work for America’s future.
The next president of the United States is going to be have to be a Roosevelt type of individual, with public works-type initiatives, that’s the scale we need to tackle this issue in this country. The security of the jobs and the economy are the major issues Americans are facing, right now. We need to put this country back to work with innovative ideas.
I hope it’s Barack Obama. I certainly think that he is capable of pulling the country together and getting the country on the right road for the future. I think there is a huge possibility of that happening.
Q: So, the economy can be turned around; what else needs to be done?
A: There’s so much. If you start focusing on balancing your budget, building up fiscal sanity and monetary policy, you’ll get a stronger dollar and a stronger country. I was there with President Clinton (photo below) when we started to balance the budget and buy down the debt for the first time in a generation; it strengthened the dollar and the economy. At the same time you need to invest in people — infrastructure jobs, green jobs, energy transmission jobs, the innovative jobs of the future. It all works well, together.
Q: The conference covered transportation issues. Maine is at the center of this geographic group of partners; what improvements can be made?
A: We need to raise the weight limits on our roads, because the traffic that is diverted to state and side roads is unsafe. It’s a safety issue. The trucks and too many cars are unsafe near hospitals, schools and downtowns. I’ve called Speaker of the House Pelosi’s office a number of times, the Chairman of the Transportation Committee Oberstar’s office, and we are working with Congressman Michaud.
We are sending a copy of the eastern New England governors’ and Canadian premiers’ resolution to Washington, in support of that issue. Actually, Premier Williams had a great suggestion. He wants us to set up a monitoring panel to ensure that we continue to be vigilant about those issues.
Q: So, the monitoring program will be continuously on your agenda?
A: Exactly, so people will want to know what’s going on, and they will be calling governors, congressmen and the president’s office, asking if we are making progress. It would be a constant source of holding people accountable for that effort — so we get solutions.
Q: David Fink, CEO of Pan Am Railroad, who attended the conference, said that of all the New England states, you are the only governor really taking important steps forward to bring back railroad transportation.
A: It’s more cost effective and energy efficient, than trucks. We work with businesses now, and the cost of energy and transportation are the two biggest issues. We have established a department and program within the DOT that is focused on rail to business. The industrial rail and access program for businesses helps them get to the main line. Then from the main line it helps them to get to the ports and airports, so they can ship their goods around the world. For them it’s cost effective. We’ve got to do more of it. That’s why we have our railroad program that will go further north from Portland to Rockland, and we are working towards industrial rail access to the trade ports in Auburn, Waterville, and Bangor. I think the more we can get off the roads and onto the rails, the more it creates an important option for businesses, and more businesses and jobs will be created here.
Q: Food is now costing more worldwide. What does Maine’s future in agriculture hold, and can rail play a part getting those goods to market?
A: Now people are concerned about the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and food safety issues. Buying local, eating local, is something people can trust in. Madison Backyard farms are doubling their capacity, expanding and increasing their deliveries. They are a tremendous organic grower, using the latest greenhouse technologies. Maine has more organic farmers per capita than any other state.
We are the garden for New England, and rail can be the connection to the markets. Combining the rail with agriculture to get our products to the Boston/New England market is a huge advantage, and these greenhouse developments are going to do more things on a year-round basis.
Q: What about value added, like what Locally Known are doing by growing organic greens and packaging them as well?
A: I love to see Maine doing more value added. Our farmers shouldn’t be importing grain, they should be growing barley in Aroostook County, milling it in Corinth, Maine, ensuring dairy farmers throughout Maine have the grain they need here. It’s expensive to buy in grain from other countries or states.
There is fallow farmland out there. We’ve gone from 150 thousand acres of potatoes in ten years down to 60 thousand acres. We have a lot of acreage, which is an opportunity out there to do things.
We have a tendency as a society to import everything, and we’ve got to figure out amongst ourselves that we can buy local and eat local. To keep the dollars here, stimulate the economy here, make the connections here. Because when we are too dependent on someone else and costs beyond our control increase, we can find ourselves in a difficult situation. The more we do to build each other up, then we’re going to have a stronger diversity to our economic and social climate that will be better and healthier for Maine.
Q: Karen Mills talked about economic development and suggested that conferences of this kind should be put on a more frequent agenda. Do you agree?
A: Absolutely. Her research with the Brookings Report on Maine and her work focusing on clusters show us our strengths. She’s helped identify what we do have and where we need to invest. With cluster development you’re not taking something from scratch. You’ve already got them, and if you give the different participants in those clusters a forum to come to and talk together about their needs and how they can benefit one another, like we did with boat building, like we are with food and energy, you’ll have a synergy there that will stimulate even more explosive growth. Then you’re going to support them in the initiatives that will help them grow. Whether it’s in aerospace development, processed food, organic food, renewable energy, energy generation, or energy efficiency appliances, Maine has the potential to become an expert in those areas. This will help us grow more manufacturing production jobs. And I’m also excited by our offshore wind potential, it has huge potential.
Q: Which brings us back to investment in green jobs of the future.(Barack Obama photo)
A: This country is a young country; we need to have new and vibrant leadership, so we can enthuse, not just ourselves, but the world, because the world needs a safe United States. The world needs a United States which is establishing best practices and is viewed as a beacon of hope around the world again, looked up to and respected. I remember my grandmother used to say, "You know it’s nice to have siestas in Italy, enjoying the mountains and Italy’s way, but we look to America as the future."
We have to remember that what we do does resonate around the world. As we improve America, it sends a message to other parts of the world that we are helping to improve the world. This is the way forward.