Maine's Speaker of the House — Glenn Cummings speaks out

by Ramona du Houx

"Let us reflect and embody these values of compassion, community, and self-determination — not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Mainers, as people committed to our great state, who know that each cannot exist without the other," said Cummings in his opening remarks as Maine’s new House speaker. With 89 Democrats and 60 Republicans in the House, reaching across the aisle to work with the opposition was more than a gesture. Cummings believes in working with everyone. He’s determined to make positive change for Maine and is focused on bringing legislators together to help Maine transition further into the global economy.

Thoughtful, insightful, and well spoken, Cummings is a pragmatist who believes that common-sense solutions will help solve Maine’s problems. He’s enthusiastic, realistic, and inspires confidence. Most importantly, he understands what the state needs to progress in a balanced, sustainable way.

"Prosperity in Maine starts with three things: affordability and access to higher education, a reasonable and competitive tax-and-spending structure, and keeping Maine the niche it is — keeping Maine, Maine — because that’s what is going to draw people here.

"If we do these things as the center of what I call ‘a prosperity plan’, we will be able to compete better on the international level in the global economy.

"My mother worked in a shoe company from 1961–1963. By the time I was in grade school, that business had closed. My grandfather was a lobsterman who worked off Georges Bank, but the fishing there dried up. In the new economy, occupations that used to last a lifetime are hard to come by. We are in an economy where knowledge is the single greatest resource and the most valuable asset a worker can gain.

"We’ve got to have more skilled people, a reasonable tax structure, and we have to take advantage of our niches. The biggest niche Maine has is that people want to come here."

Education —

Cummings works as the director of the Entrepreneurial Center at Southern Maine Community College and teaches business, economics, and leadership management. At SMCC he helped established the Entrepreneurial Center in a successful effort to provide Maine students with the training and the confidence they need to bring their ideas to the marketplace.

He is passionate about education. "The quality of people’s lives dramatically changes with a college degree; it’s the road to prosperity," Cummings said.

"In order to reach the amount of people we need to, we have to make a higher education more affordable. People who traditionally would not be going to college need to be recruited. Adult-ed and community colleges build people’s confidence and get them to understand that they can achieve higher education goals. Then they can move to the university system. Affordability is a key point to whether or not someone will attend college and stay in college.

"My goal, on top of the governor’s budget, will be to add money to the adult-ed Community College System in order to bring the tuition of community colleges down to the national average. If we bring costs down from around $2,300, down to $1,900, which is closer to the national average, it will make a significant difference. For students where I teach, at SMCC, that $400 means a lot.

"There have to be more options for learning as well. When we think about expanding community colleges, we need to build upon campuses that exist right now, and really look at ‘expanding’ in a different way. Maine is a very rural state, and in many areas it’s hard to get to the community colleges. I’m thinking of a single mom who lives in Jackman and wants to earn a degree — the expense of child care and transportation just to get to Bangor ads up pretty quickly. If she could put the kids to bed by 8 and go downstairs and turn on her computer, it would make her goals easier to obtain. We need to do more with the technology that exists, so more people in the state can earn degrees."

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Prosperity —

"We must recognize that we live in a state which has among the highest in administrative overhead costs, and among the lowest in economic development investments. As policy makers, we must restore a better balance. Allowing us to make the crucial investments in infrastructure and in growing economic industries like biotech and bio-med," said Cummings in his address to legislators. He also stressed Maine needs to get taxes in line, in order to grow the economy.

"I feel very confident. There are lots of people elected to the Legislature that want to grow Maine. Some people will want to say we should just have tax cuts, or more research and development funding or less of this . . . Most people know that we need a combination of measures, like the Brookings report suggested, to move Maine forward. If we focus on prosperity for all the people of Maine, I believe we will be able to find common ground to move forward together."

The Brooking report also stated Maine has a brand name that is known around the world. Cummings believes we can enhance it by keeping Maine — Maine.

"There is a close connection between the land we have and the character of the people. Part of what we need to do is preserve our land. A quarter of an acre an hour in southern Maine is being destroyed by subdivisions, while we speak, every business day. In the last 20 years, development and sprawl have changed the face of an area the size of Rhode Island. Commercial and residential construction has helped the economy in the early 90s, but now we need to look at preserving and enhancing what we have.

"If we become like suburban Boston, we will lose some of the qualities that bring people to Maine. That’s why Land for Maine’s Future is so important, and why we need better urban growth policies and more affordable housing. We have to preserve the environment and keep our open spaces. Instead of watching suburbs springing up, we can work with communities, revitalize downtowns, and renovate apartment buildings. We can create development policies to make those kinds of things happen. These measures should help keep some of the pieces of Maine that we love alive. We also need to look more at biotech, bio-med and financial service sectors, which all have great growth potential."

During his speech to the Legislature, Cummings announced his intention to create a Joint Select Committee on Prosperity, which would be charged with crafting a sustainable economic plan for the state. Cummings intends to work with the governor and the governor’s Council on Jobs, Innovation and the Economy, created to address the same issues.

"The president of the senate and I will work together to create a Special Select Committee on Prosperity. It will be a broad committee where standing committees of expertise will report," said Cummings, as he stressed that everything is interrelated, but in committees they get divided from the whole. "For example, decisions you make on education affect your taxes, which affect research and development capacity, and so on — there’s a tight link. Appropriations isn’t the right place for this, because they are basically a means committee, not a ways committee. The Prosperity Committee will be charged with keeping the entire economic picture in focus when making decisions. It’s a broader select committee that says, here are all the ideas that are related to Brookings and Maine prosperity; here’s how we put them into a whole package."

Although Democrats are now enjoying a substantial majority in the House, the Senate only has a one-vote Democratic margin. "There are some liberal Republicans and some conservative Democrats in the Maine Senate, which should prove for an interesting session. We have to ensure that we send the Senate bills that they will vote on," said Cummings. "Good communication is essential. Politics is principled compromise. We must work together to make policies that will shape a more sustainable future, a future that I’m optimistic about."