March 26, 2013

Senate President Justin Alfond at work his office in Augusta. Alfond is determined to improve education and health care, build the middle class, and spur economic development. Photo by Ramona du Houx

While I was waiting for an interview with Senator Justin Alfond, his office was buzzing with other lawmakers, advocates, and citizens trying to get a few minutes of his time. The secretary skillfully juggled his schedule to make sure everyone would see the 115th president of the Maine State Senate, and that’s exactly how Alfond likes it. He’s an accessible statesman, dedicated to the state he grew up in and loves deeply. Since being elected to the Senate in 2008, he has taken action to make sure his constituents’ needs are met. He also has an unwavering passion for improving public education.

When he’s not in Augusta, Alfond can usually be found in Portland, where he is co-owner of a successful bowling alley and restaurant, Bayside Bowl, which for many patrons also serves as a community center. Devoted to helping his community, Alfond saw the bowling alley as a catalyst for economic development, and he loves playing the game. Since Bayside Bowl’s opening, many other businesses have sprouted up on the Bayside peninsula, and the area’s redevelopment plans are moving ahead with momentum.

Alfond also has the distinction of being a former pro golfer, who won a match against — Tiger Woods. He lives in Portland with his wife, Rachael, and son, Jacoby.

Recently, we sat down and talked about his new responsibilities, about working with Gov. Paul LePage, and plans to grow Maine’s economic opportunities and improve public education.

Over the past two years, the governor has shifted costs with his policies on health care, education, taxes, and again in his biennial budget. Would you say Gov. LePage could be characterized as the tax-shift governor?

Our governor set his choices and priorities with his budget proposal. His choices include tax shifts to municipalities and tax increases to all Mainers. Businesses are facing $11 million in increases if the BETR [Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement], which reimburses businesses for new equipment, is removed. There are over $400 million in costs being shifted. From day one, Democrats have been outspoken that this not a way to grow the economy, to support the middle class, or to support businesses and teachers. I have a lot of concerns about the tax shifts and changing our state obligations. The revenue-sharing obligation has been in our statute since 1971 — it’s how municipalities create strong local communities, downtowns, schools, and economic hubs.

That revenue-sharing obligation normally sees 5 percent of the sales tax revenue go to municipalities for ongoing operations, but LePage wants to stop that cash flow for two years. What does your revenue-sharing bill propose?

My bill would create an irrevocable trust, so that no governor or legislature [press uses Legislature, but style manual says lowercase] could raid the revenue-sharing fund. The constant raiding of revenue sharing is a big problem for our municipalities — they need to have sustainable and predictable ways to plan for the future. I agree with many of my fellow Republicans that the money earned by our towns should stay as close to the people as possible. Municipalities are generating this money, so it should go back to them to spend on ways that help their towns grow.

With this biennial budget, towns have two choices: cut services, which could mean job losses, or they must raise property taxes. Over 40 percent of our taxes are property taxes; it’s the most regressive way for people to pay taxes, because it does not take into account their ability to pay.

With big cuts to health care, education, and revenue sharing, would you call LePage’s budget an austerity budget? How will the economy grow?

The governor’s proposal, which is possibly the largest tax shift in our state’s history, will hurt people. Over $400 million are being shifted onto municipalities and businesses; that will inevitably raise property taxes.

Democrats have an alternative way to grow the middle class and our economy. We must make investments in our economic hubs, in research and development, and support small businesses. This is how we can help grow our economy. It’s a blueprint for growth. That’s why Democrats’ first order in the 126th legislature was creating a Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future. The Joint Select Committee’s job is to look at these growth areas to move Maine forward. We will also look at the cost drivers and ways for small businesses to increase their demand of products. Our goal in Maine must be helping small businesses grow from five employees or less to medium-size businesses. We’re also very excited to see new opportunities in research and development.

Gov. LePage has refused to release voter-approved bonds, which represent projects that could create jobs immediately. What can you do to fix this stalemate?

There are a number of bills to change the authority of who can issue bonds. Both Republicans and Democrats want the governor to release the bond funding. When Mainers went to the polls, they voted to make investments. They want those jobs to start now so that we can jumpstart our state. The various bonds represent over 3,200 jobs worth $296 million in economic activity. The governor has kept these bonds from working for over 776 days. We should be putting Mainer’s back at work, but the governor has insisted on holding Maine back.

These bills to change who can authorize bonds are important. We don’t want to get into this position again. No person should be able to keep thousands of jobs on the sidelines and hundreds of millions of dollars stifled. The construction industry has a 26 percent unemployment rate right now. Those folks are ready to get to work.

What about LePage’s proposal where he won’t release these voter-approved bonds unless the legislature votes for his liquor bill that also has his own bond attached to it? Is it fair to hold voter-approved bonds hostage?

Releasing those bonds should not be an ultimatum. Using Washington, DC, politics in order to release the bonds is going against the will of Maine people. One of the hallmarks of Maine politics is that we always roll up our sleeves to get things done. The people don’t want ultimatums that are contingent on other actions. The governor should be releasing those bonds immediately to help our economy — now.

What’s your working relationship with Republicans like? How is the work on the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future going?

Since day one, Speaker Eves and I have set a tone to cooperate and collaborate with our Republican colleagues. We are creating trust. I’m pleased about our interactions. This upfront work will help us be successful with future big issues that we will face over the next two years.

The work on the Joint Select Committee is twofold. One, we have to start promoting the state. It’s my job to share all the great things that are happening in Maine. We are highlighting what the state of Maine has to offer; our workers, our great downtowns, small and large businesses, our public education system, and our quality of life are second to none. Maine’s environment and brand are also an incredible asset.

There are a lot of bipartisan ideas on the committee. Right now we are working on the skills gap, economic hubs, small business, and cost drivers for businesses. We’re also looking at college-transferable credits, skill-oriented education, augmenting work-ready programs, and how to incentivize more students to go on to higher education — like enhancing Opportunity Maine. We may tweak existing programs or create new ones.

The chance to help incubate the next great idea is exciting. I have had people tell me that the Joint Select Committee is why they came to Augusta. The committee is connecting many of the dots in our economy and working on the biggest issues on how to grow the economy.

You have a degree in business administration from Tulane. In 2004 you founded and became the director of the Maine League of Young Voters. You were a major driving force behind Opportunity Maine, the statewide program which provides a tax credit to help cover the payment of student loans for students who work and pay taxes to Maine after they finish college. Outside of the legislature, you’ve worked on several housing and business projects. Have your experiences helped you in your new role?

I’ve been in leadership roles throughout my career, so becoming Senate president seemed natural in many ways. At the same time, I’m humbled and honored by my colleagues’ faith in me.

We are here in Augusta to problem-solve — to find solutions. I am focused on working with the entire State Senate body to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and to ensure great decorum. My policy is simple — all 35 members can walk into my office for a visit anytime.

The governor’s proposal would reduce $39 million from current education funding levels over the next two years.

I feel a real sense of urgency to prioritize our next two years of work. I want to make sure that the most important issues facing the state are brought up and discussed fully. We must be productive and get the work done that the people of Maine expect us to do. They want us to find solutions — together — to make sure their lives and their families get better. We have a lot of people that are pulling for us, and we have to do our part.

Do you have a plan?

We have a lot of goals for the next two years, which we announced last December. First, we need to improve the business climate and look at job creation and the economy. Secondly, we need to strengthen public education. Third, we need to drive down energy and health care costs. And fourth, we need to invest in our future with different programs, including research and development bond funding. We must ensure that we are keeping Maine in a place that is competitive with the rest of the country and the world. And we need to invest in our infrastructure, so when companies look around they can see that Maine has great broadband, good roads, bridges, and ports, and good economic hubs where they can have a business.

I’m very optimistic from the support we’ve gotten so far.

On education —

Sen. Alfond has submitted 24 bills for lawmakers to review. Many are in education reform. Recently, the Maine Charter School Commission rejected two virtual charter schools that were to be operated by out-of-state companies, K12 Inc. of Herndon, VA, and Connections Learning of Baltimore, MD. These online education companies were the focus of an award-winning Sunday Telegram investigation that exposed how they influenced Maine’s digital education policies and how the schools where they operated fared poorly in student achievement studies.

Throughout your career, you have been a tremendous advocate for improving public education from expanding early childhood opportunities to making higher education more affordable with Opportunity Maine. In Augusta, you’ve chaired the Education Committee and have proven to be a strong voice for advancing educational systems with technology and other innovative teaching methods. Why are you against virtual charter schools?

Since I entered the State Senate in 2009, I’ve pushed to make sure we’re innovating in our public schools. Schools across Maine are changing the K-12 experience. Over the next few years, our public schools will move away from having their students sitting in a seat for 12 years. This model is not effective for every student. In its place, Maine schools will provide multiple pathways for students to learn. By 2018, all schools in Maine will have moved from a seat-time model to a standards-based system that specifically registers proficiency.

I’ve been a strong supporter of technology in our schools. Every session, I’ve passed a few technology bills. I’ve done this because technology is part of Maine’s education future. We need to make sure that we build on the great start we gave students with the laptop program. But I’ve never wanted technology to replace teachers. So my opposition to virtual charter schools is built on the mounting evidence around virtual charter school performance in other states. I don’t think Maine can have our heads in the sand and say, “This is going to be different in Maine.”

I submitted a bill to have a moratorium on all virtual charter schools. We need to give the state Charter School Commission time to research best practices and analyze why some of these full-time virtual schools are not getting positive results. They need to look at the best models and look at how we could have a full-time virtual school and then come back with a proposal. It’s time to slow down and let the state Charter School Commission do their prep work. I think we can move ahead with a Maine-based solution.

Do you have a bill to build on technology in the classroom?

I am introducing a bill to bring over 115 online classes to all Maine schools. The bill is already being piloted in four school districts here. Maine teachers have developed the first 12 classes of curriculum and are teaching the online classes. It’s all Maine based.

There will be professional development for teachers, so they are up-to-date with all the relevant technology.

This potential program would be just for high school students because I’m still convinced that K–8 students need the social interaction and relationship building in elementary and middle school.

The online program would designate a teacher in every school to monitor student’s progress and support them. The students would be able to connect with their online teacher, the designated teacher in their school, and peers to do group collaborations. Just like the regular classroom, a major goal for students would be critical thinking and completing tasks without having to ask a teacher for advice every step of the way.

Technology is a part of everyday life — it belongs in the classroom, but it needs to enhance the classroom, not replace the classroom. I’m excited. It’s a proactive bill to make sure Maine students have every opportunity to have online classes.