Interview with Maine's Gov. Baldacci about three port strategy for economic growth, rail plans, the energy transmission lines, Pass ID, and Universal Wellness program

By Ramona du Houx - August 12th, 2009 · 

Governor Baldacci at the State House in Maine
Governor Baldacci at the State House in Maine in 2009. Photo by Ramona du Houx
The Annual National Governors Association Conference was held in Bilox, Mississippi, in July why was it important to attend?

It was a very important meeting because we were given an opportunity to talk directly to Obama Administration representatives as a bi-partisan group of Governors.

We talked about energy transmission interconnection lines, about the issues of renewable energies, education, healthcare, and rail expansion. We were given a presentation on the economy from the Federal Reserve director in the Atlanta district. It was very worthwhile.

We were able to weigh in on the national healthcare reform, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, which was a unique opportunity. We shared the importance of making sure people have universal access to quality affordable health care. At the same time we wanted to make sure that unfunded mandates weren’t passed onto the states.

It gave me an opportunity to talk about Maine’s Universal Wellness Initiative. It’s a program that has been rolled out in two or three counties now. It will be going statewide the first of the year. People will be able to log on to a webpage and access resources locally, so they can do up front screening and primary preventative heath care education. The website also connects people with the resources they need in their own communities using the Healthy Maine Partnerships network.

The Universal Wellness Initiative is an innovative way to connect people with local heath care resources that are free or subsidized, as well as offering preventative care information. We are trying to build wellness and healthy out comes for people by making information and care more accessible.

I saw a New York Times article today that said that the United State’s healthcare system costs $165 billion dollars a year, ten percent of that cost comes from the problem we face with obesity. The Universal Wellness Initiative is a needed step in the right direction. It’s a very controversial and complex issue, we have to tackle. It’s one sixth of our economy. If we are not careful it will overtake our entire economy.

President Clinton has said this issue is as important as climate change. Do you agree?

It is. Both issues are connected. When you are talking to people about energy, its about being more efficient, being more renewable, and domestic. They begin to think more about the environment, more about what they are doing to the environment, and what the environment maybe doing to them. That could lead to buying local fresh produce because they want to cut down on the transportation pollution caused by trucking produce to Maine from California. Being energy efficient is part of living a healthy life style. By reducing green house gasses you are making the planet healthier, people healthier, and the economy healthier. How we look at issues changes how we interact and our lifestyles generally follow those changes.

In the business community Hannaford’s corporate leadership is showing the way and setting an example for other companies. Their new store in Augusta is the world’s first Platinum LEED certified supermarket. It shows their commitment to energy efficiency and healthy eating. They have an organic line, and are selling Backyard Farms tomatoes from their hydroponic green houses in Madison. They are using geothermal and solar energy to heat and cool the supermarket. The store also serves as an educational center for schools. You know, they started as a small Maine store. They realize the benefit of being energy efficient to the planet, the community, and economically. More and more companies are making the same realization.

Look at our paper companies. They want their trees to be grown in a sustainable certified way. The have realized that it’s how they can insure their company’s future. More and more of them are diversifying, looking at becoming biorefineries producing cellulosic ethanol.

We are meeting with the owner of the Old Town Fuel and Fiber mill who is very interested in producing jet fuel, made from cellulosic ethanol for helicopters and tanks. (Old Town Fuel and Fiber bio-refinery would produce the fuel).

We are seeing a lot of corporate leadership making the connection that a clean energy economy is good for the bottom line. It’s what needs to happen. It’s a good business practice to conserve, protect and stretch your resources. It makes sure we have a sustainable policy for economic development.

With possible federal improvements to the Downeaster Route travel time between Boston and Portland would be cut down to two hours and the new system would support seven daily round trips. With 90 percent of northeastern residents living within 50 miles of passenger-grade rail, economic development along the line is predicted to increase. What’ s the update on the Downeaster?

I was really pleased that the Congress nearly doubled the appropriation for rail. The original four billion was closer to eight billion. We don’t have a national rail policy let alone a regional policy. We, in Maine, want to do more.

We have a plan before the Department of Transportation to expand the Downeaster to Brunswick, with a stop in Freeport. Then we have a connection on the Eastern Railroad to go on to Rockland. We have proposals to connect our ports in Searsport with rail, and Eastport with rail. Our hope is that we will know before the beginning of the year weather we get the green light or not.

Despite the recession Eastern ports are seeing a steady rise in the amount of cargo container shipping traffic. Charles Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Rail said the use of freight is estimated to increase by 80 percent by 2025. Does this make you hopeful for Maine’s ports?

If our businesses are going to be able to compete and get their goods to market they can’t continue to put them on big rigs and transport them on the roads because it costs too much. They need other options available to them; rail, ports and airports. I think we are going to get a balanced transportation presentation with rail and our ports being a big part of it. I’m excited about this administrations initiatives and what we are doing here in the state of Maine.

Cargo container business has increased, and will continue to, even if the economy is flat. Businesses are shipping more because of the cost of transporting their goods using diesel or gas is higher than shipping. Passing transportation costs on to consumers is not a good business practice. Consumers pay for value. Businesses understand their predicament and are realigning by shipping their goods because it is more efficient. Portland, Eastport and Searsport can be major players. There is a bond issue to help improve these ports come November.

Maine is the doorstep to North America. You have to come in and out of Maine’s corridors in order to get into North America from Europe. And Europe is the in-between stop to Asia. That puts us on the front line for import and export opportunities.

If you look at the map of Maine with 17,000 million acres of forestlands, there are three major veins running through the state. The first is Downeast – Northern Maine that the port of Eastport serves. The second is Millinocket–Katahdin region that Searsport will serve, and the third is Portland and Southern Maine, which has Portland’s cargo port.

We have a three-port strategy based upon these veins of economic development and traffic. The more we can help facilitate that three port strategy the more we can help businesses who can then employ more people.

It will go a long way to help our pulp and paper companies which are a manufacturing base in Maine. By diversifying they have become stabilized, during a very difficult time.

Once the three-port strategy is in place, traffic generates traffic, more business opportunities and economic development will follow.

The U.S. spends less than 2% on infrastructure; China spends more than 9%. Congresswoman Rosa Delauro has a bill proposing a Capital Infrastructure Bank. You sat on the Transportation committee when you were in Congress. What do you think of the proposal?

It’s a good idea. One of the big differences between Maine ‘s budget and the federal budget is that we have bonding, so it’s a capitol budget. Specific projects costs are not integrated in the general fund budget; only transportation financing is a part of the budget. Washington put’s it all into the big budget. Paying for projects that could have a thirty to sixty year life span, out of a current operational budget becomes improbable at best. Most of the time funds promised to states for long term projects never materialize.

It’s simply not fair to the overall finances of the federal government, and the economy. It should be financed like you finance your house. When you are putting on an addition, you are going to get a home improvement loan. Or when you buy a house you’ll finance it with a mortgage. Why would you ever think you could pay for it out of your weekly pay roll check? You can’t so you never make any improvements.

We need a Capital Infrastructure Bank so projects that will last long term are paid for in a long term way. The theory is that future generations will benefit from capitol improvements to roads, bridges, rails, ports and airports. So we need to make sure we’ve set this on a financing course to make sure that future generations contribute to that effort.

Why should it be fair to today’s generation to pay for a bridge or railroad that will last for a hundred years? We don’t do that in the state of Maine. It’s something that is needed and should be amended to our federal budgeting process in the form of a Capital Infrastructure Bank.

The governors aren’t supporting a specific piece of legislation; we support the principle of a Capital Infrastructure Bank. I’m hopeful from what Rosa said that they will have a mark-up on the House side soon in regards to that legislation.

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, said at the conference that the Pass ID legislation is designed to replace the controversial Real ID law. How so?

Pass ID is a cost-effective solution that balances critical security requirements with the input and practical needs of state governments. What’s gone on is we have people coming in from out of state obtaining drivers’ licenses here, even though they aren’t residents. They have been using those licensees as I.D. to access our programs that benefit the people of Maine.

We need to put integrity into our drivers’ licenses. We need to make sure that people who live and work in the state are able to have a driver’s license that recognizes who they are.

I feel very strongly about this because of the cases the Commissioner of Public Safety has shared with me, that are currently in Federal Court. Vanloads of people have traveled up from Boston, obtained Maine drivers’ licenses, and broke the law by using them under false pretenses.

People in Maine are welcoming people, open trusting people; it’s just the way we are. In today’s world people take advantage of that good nature.

I know the Secretary of State, Matt Dunlop, has to administer the changes, and it is administratively difficult, but it is important for our public safety and the integrity of our drivers’ licenses, and to our taxpayers.

All we are asking is that people have to prove they are residents of the State of Maine. Pass I.D. takes out the onerous requirements, like the photo imaging, and putting personal information on a national database, that would infringe upon civil liberties. None of that will happen.

The Obama Administration, working in a bi-partisan manner with the National Governor’s Association, has come up with this compromise. It’s about strengthening drivers licenses, cutting down the cost to states enormously, while giving us needed flexibility. We’re looking to pass that nationally, and we are ready to adjust our laws if need be to the national law.

The amount of energy this new clean energy economy will need to power America is staggering. How is Maine progressing its clean energy goals?

Wind, solar, tidal, natural gas and wood are all a part of our energy solution. The potential to export wind energy is great. We have the largest wind farms in New England.

I was so proud when the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was here and I could say, ‘others talk about it, we build it.’

He asked how long it takes us to permit a site and build the wind farm. I told him it took us three and a half years for the first wind farm on Mars Hill. That amazed him. He said coal fired plants take a lot longer to get permitted and up and running. Frankly, I told him three and a half years was too long. So we’ve implemented changes, by working with Maine’s environmental community and the legislature. Now, in some areas in Maine, you can get expedited permits.

We are transferring that expedited permitting process to offshore wind projects. We are working to have five pre-permitted sites, no only to conduct the research but also the development of offshore wind. We’re already working with the environmental community and regulators to set those plans in motion. So we have the potential to free ten thousand mega watts of electricity offshore, which is the energy equivalent of forty nuclear power plants.

If you take that power and funnel it through to the Northeast to Boston and New York, Maine becomes a huge energy source for them. It’s an economic development source for us because you get the tax revenues, added construction, and transmission jobs. The economy benefits too as more businesses will come here because of the energy, and they in turn will conduct more business here.

It’s important to remember that its not just wind. We have potential in tidal and solar energy as well. And then there are our forests. We have our wood pellets, and biorefinary projects that will produce cellulosic ethanol. We have great opportunities with a wood resource of 17,000 million acres. It’s a huge sustainable resource.

Maine is the Saudi Arabia of forestry, and the Saudi Arabia of wind energy.

Also there is going to be a lot more use for electricity. With more availability of the resource, with transmission lines in place, costs should decrease. People will want to get away from petroleum cars. People are already looking towards electric heat.

More things will be done with the efficient use of electricity. The shift will happen because there is a great need. Maine can become a huge energy exporter and with ease meet the electric needs of our people.

The thing we have to be mindful about is that we get it done working together so we don’t allow the Midwest D.C transmission line to come through and negate all our efforts to develop wind power in the Northeast because we couldn’t get our act together.

We need to get our act together, listen to all sides of the debate, do necessary research, and act.