Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Peter Mills: A Warning Like Ike's
Bangor Daily News OpEd by Senator Peter Mills
March 14, 2007

Toward the end of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the "military-industrial complex" that so dominated national spending priorities in the 1950s and continues to do so even to this day. His warning was especially cogent because Eisenhower himself had been a member of that complex for most of his life.

Today, most state governments, and Maine in particular, are subject to a similar dominance that could fittingly be called the "socio-educational complex," one that is supported by the two big pillars of state spending:

    - Social services costing $2.8 billion per year in state and federal dollars; and

    - Kindergarten through 12th-grade education costing more than $2 billion per year.

Together they account for more than 12 percent of Maine's gross state product.

Within social services, about 90 percent of the money is spent on contract payments to private nonprofit providers who employ tens of thousands of Maine citizens to take care of hundreds of thousands more. Each year, a number of those who work for these providers are elected to the Maine Legislature. They serve on key committees, such as Appropriations and Human Services, where public money is dispensed to their employers.

On the education side, current and retired teachers comprise a fifth of the Maine Legislature and 70 percent of the Education Committee. When recently assigned to review the governor's dramatic proposal to cut K-12 spending, a majority of the Education Committee responded by proposing to sustain the status quo well into the next biennium. They recommended spending $3.5 million on regional facilitators to engender endless local discussions for years to come with no action required, no results guaranteed and few consequences for failure. Not surprisingly, it was drafted by lobbyists for school administrators, the very people due for layoffs by the governor's plan.

Maine has 152 superintendents. It could do with half that many. Maine has 290 school units. One fifth that number would suffice. Maine outspends most other states on school administrative costs. Sensible consolidation could save $100 million a year without touching classrooms.

We can achieve these goals by creating economic incentives, just as was done in the Sinclair era of the 1950s. It may not be necessary to come down with a heavy hand as the governor proposes; but we do need to take advantage of this governor's timely courage in proposing a reform so radical that it makes every other plan look moderate by comparison.

Some legislators say that going slow is the only option, that only a weak bill can pass. They shrug and argue that any strong measure will fail to get the votes needed from so many who are committed to the educational establishment.

The governor, on the other hand, has said he will veto an inadequate bill. He pledges to keep the Legislature working for as long as necessary to get needed reforms - even if it means holding sessions into July without pay.

I can't think of anything better for the Legislature to do this summer vacation.