PORTLAND – Standing before more than 50 young adults of all nationalities enrolled in the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program, Gov. John E. Baldacci was all smiles recently as he accepted an award for his support of the top-performing initiative.
The program serves more than 2,500 students from 200 communities each year and has a graduation rate of 96 percent. Working with high school-age students, the program is a collaboration of Maine businesses and nonprofit organizations and educators and strives to connect the teenagers with real-life working environments.
Many of the students come from backgrounds that present challenges as they strive to meet their goals. Their struggles are not lost on Baldacci, who faces significant obstacles as he asks Maine voters to give him a second four-year term on Nov. 7.
“It’s so nice to see those kids going on to college because in a lot of cases they wouldn’t be,” Baldacci said just after accepting the award. “These kids were struggling, and it’s as if all of a sudden, a light was turned on for them and their lives are transformed.”
On the campaign trail, Baldacci emphasizes his work with Maine students and with the larger statewide education community. He frequently cites his backing of initiatives such as the private college savings accounts through the state-sponsored NextGen program, increased funding for college and private laboratory research and development efforts, and increased minimum salaries for teachers.
Although he initially did not support a citizen initiative to boost state funding for kindergarten through grade 12 education costs to 55 percent, the governor got behind the proposal after it was approved by voters in a statewide referendum.
Baldacci now claims the phased-in, educational funding increase as part of his administration’s chief accomplishments.
“It was a challenge to bump up local education to 55 percent from 43 percent – that was 833 million new dollars,” he said. The administration expects to reach the full 55 percent by the end of the next budget cycle. “It’s a hard balancing act that we couldn’t afford to do all at once. But we’re meeting that responsibility and we’re requiring that most of that relief go directly onto property tax relief.”
Baldacci occasionally grumbles that his critics frequently overlook accomplishments such as meeting the 55 percent education funding goal and balancing state budgets without wholesale program cuts or increases to broad-based taxes such as the sales tax. Instead, he said, the governor’s office becomes a convenient target for those who believe Maine does too much for its poor people by propping up social service programs it no longer can afford.
The tax system, the state economy, jobs and health care costs are all interrelated for Baldacci, who has seen his popularity dip in a variety of statewide polls over the last two years. The governor is quick to point out that he was forced to deal with unanticipated crises almost immediately upon assuming office. He recalled meeting with top officials when he learned that the Great Northern Paper mill was filing for bankruptcy shortly before his inauguration.
“I remember the wind rattling the windows in the Cabinet room,” he said. “It made you think the wolves were at the door.”
The governor said he was informed in a matter of weeks that:
. The state was facing a $1.2 billion budget gap between anticipated revenues and the expected cost of ongoing services and programs.
. He had inherited problems with the state’s migratory student education program.
. He had inherited a $250 million loan to cover the collection of anticipated state taxes.
“A lot of people thought we wouldn’t be able to balance the budget without raising taxes,” Baldacci said. “It wasn’t easy, and a lot of sacrifices were made, but we were able to transition the state at that point and square the bills.”
Additionally, the governor’s Dirigo health care program met – and continues to meet – heavy resistance from Republicans who dismiss the initiative as too costly and ineffective and for stifling competition for other private insurers. Baldacci has hung tough on Dirigo and believes a recently appointed task force will identify improvements that will make the program less costly and boost enrollment.
The governor’s attention was diverted frequently during the last four years by issues from policy initiatives to just dealing with gyrations of state economy. Baldacci maintains that the time he devoted to fighting the proposed closure of military installations in Maine targeted by the federal Base Realignment and Closure commission was well worth it since thousands of jobs were saved from the “chopping block.”
“I think that was one of the best moments for us,” he said. “But I was also pleased we were able to pull Lincoln Pulp and Paper out of bankruptcy. It now has 400 workers with a $21 million payroll. I was fighting to save those jobs, working to pay off our hospital debt and still have a Rainy Day Fund. It’s a heck of a balancing act.”
The governor says Maine gets a bad rap on taxes that he maintains stem more from the demographics of the state than any particular political philosophy. He argues there is “way too much administration at all levels” driving state, county and local costs skyward. Explaining that Mainers have lower-than-average wages and higher per capita costs, Baldacci said the combination “puts stress on all individuals and gives us a higher tax burden than the national average.”
“We are no longer the number one state for tax burden in the country according to the U.S. Census,” he said. “We’ve gone to number three according to the 2004 census. Yes, they’re baby steps, but they’re in the right direction. But we’ve got to continue to bring it down.”
In addition to dealing with crises within the state, Baldacci has found that U.S. foreign policy and the war in Iraq have generated sobering responsibilities for the state’s chief executive. The governor has stopped counting how many times he has ordered the flag flown at half-staff this year for Maine soldiers who have died in combat. As Maine’s 2nd District congressman, one of the last votes the governor cast was against the war in Iraq.
He says those who serve continually humble him and the families they leave behind.
“We’re so damn lucky that we have people who are so patriotic and God-fearing, who will put their lives out front, sacrificing themselves and their families on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re just damn lucky to have them. I just want to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to support them, their families and their efforts. I remember that during the Vietnam War, we didn’t do a very good job of supporting our soldiers. I don’t want to see that happen twice.”
Candidate in Profile
John E. Baldacci
Political career: Elected governor 2002; 2nd District congressman, 1995-2002; state senator from Bangor, 1983-1994.
Education: University of Maine graduate
Personal: Married, one son