Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Glenn Cummings. Photo by Ramona du Houx

January/February 2008

Interview by Ramona du Houx

“I try to make sure to have a personal connection with representatives,” said Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings. “There will always be disagreements on principle between the parties. I try and build relationships with everyone. I build them into the process, being respectful. Josh Tardy has been working with us to get the job done. We don’t always agree but working together sets a good tone.”

In the mornings Cummings meets with Democratic leaders as well as Republicans before they head to the House chambers and commence the business of the day.

“This is new,” said the speaker. “It has helped to resolve problems before they become issues out on the floor. I’m not about to treat people as if they don’t count, of course they make a huge difference. That’s why they are here. I say: let’s all get together and see what we can accomplish. I think that process is effective. The interesting thing was that the longest debates weren’t partisan.”

The next legislative session is going to be looking at more consolidation efforts put forward by the governor, helping downtowns with revitalization efforts, addressing the tax credit for restoring historic buildings, Maine’s quality places, and the supplemental budget that has to address the $95 million shortfall. Consolidation efforts, along with assisting communities in the state with funds to enhance their quality of place were issues highlighted in the Brookings report recommendations for what Maine needs to do to succeed in 21st-century economy.

“I think the governor is conceptually right with his consolidation efforts. The more areas that are identified where we can save money, the better it is for everyone,” said the speaker. “School consolidation happened and continues to be worked on. To maintain 290 different school administration units was the wrong direction, the governor is heading the state in the right direction. I’m supportive of his efforts.”

There is support in some communities for jail consolidation, and the Legislature will decide upon the issue this session.

“Jail consolidation has to be looked at as part of a larger conversation. On its own it’s hard for people to understand. It’s not an attempt by the State to grab power. It is part of the overall consolidation savings initiative,” said Cummings. “We can’t continue to live with these inefficiencies. Why do companies streamline their businesses? They do it to survive; state government has to do the same. We also need to look at the overall efficiencies, and our tax structure. We owe it to the people.”

Cummings highlighted the difference between socially responsible consolidation versus a non-humanitarian approach.

“Government has a significant capacity of building equity and opportunity. That’s why you can’t cut and slash government. History and evidence show that the cut and slash process has damaged democracy. When we talk about efficiencies, we need to talk about what we are giving up. And when we make savings from stopping duplications we need to ask what would be the best thing we can do with them? Investing in education, small companies, and basic highway infrastructure help to build economic growth. Cut and reinvest is what Brookings said, and it is what we need to continue to do,” concluded Cummings.

The Legislature will submit a report on what measures should be taken to preserve and grow Maine’s quality places this session.

“Protecting our quality places is protecting who we are. Ultimately, our land — our cultural heritage distinguishes us. We need to make investments in our downtowns to preserve the character that we have in our historic buildings. We don’t want to become like “anyplace” in the U.S.; we need to remain Maine,” said the speaker.

On Education —

Speaker Cummings is a professor of economics and entrepreneurship and teaches at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) and the University of Southern Maine. He took the time to talk about the importance of a higher degree in the global economy.

“This is a really good time to invest in higher education in Maine. We have more high school students showing up at the doors of higher education than ever before. Community Colleges have grown tremendously. At SMCC, we have doubled the number of students attending over a five-year period. We now serve over five thousand students a year. They understand the value of higher education,” said Cummings.

The latest figures from the Sen. George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute in Portland show that just 50 percent of Maine high school graduates pursue college degrees.

“There is a concentrated marketing effort to attract students. The cost is reasonable, the teachers are good, and the education will put you into a position to succeed. The earning capacity, between people with four-year degrees and two-year degrees, is relatively small. Of course getting a BA is great but financially harder to achieve. What we are saying is: at least get that two-year degree, because it can serve you well. Then after two years if you want to pursue a BA, all the community college credits are transferable.”

Over 98 percent of community college graduates find employment within the first year they graduate. Keeping students in college once they start remains a challenge.

“We have a low retention rate. For a variety of reasons it can be difficult for students to stay in college once they start attending. It’s something we really need to look at in the Legislature,” said Cummings. “The research is interesting. If a student feels connected to the college through a professor, club, or program, they are more likely to stay in college. In fact keeping students engaged in a personal way is more important than the cost.”

Currently, there are skilled jobs available in Maine, but there are not enough skilled workers to fill them.

“There’s still a capacity block. There aren’t enough trained workers in the culinary arts, welding, high-tech jobs, and nursing to meet the demand that is out there. Two years ago it was estimated that 4,200 well-paying jobs weren’t able to be filled. If a company came to the state and said I have 4,200 skilled jobs available, we would go out of our way with TIFFs and training programs to bring them here. We can’t expect businesses to come here if they have to educate their workforce. That’s why community colleges are so important,” said Cummings. “Maine remains seven points behind the rest of New England with the number of people who have a higher degree. Probably the number-one thing that we can do for the economy is to continue to invest in higher education.”