Next I would like to thank those who have worked so hard to prepare this magnificent building. Let me specifically acknowledge a wonderful quartet, whose vision, hard work and determination have made this statehouse a gem for all the people of the State of Maine.
Thank you to Stan Fairservice – the Legislature’s construction supervisor.
Thank you to our new Executive Director David Boulter.
Thank you to our Clerk of the House Millie McFarland.
Thank you Speaker of the House Libby Mitchell.
Together you and over two hundred subcontractors from throughout our state have restored this beautiful building to its original grandeur. Congratulations on a job well done.
Most of all, I am pleased to be together again with all of you. While I had the opportunity to visit with some of you over the break, I have missed the human vitality that makes our capitol the people’s building. Your ideas and ingenuity, your passions for the people you represent hold the promise to fulfill the collective potential of our branch of state government.
Our world has changed since the last time we gathered. It has changed because of the brutality of the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and our way of life. It has shaken the foundation of our nation, our state and our communities.
Now more than ever our shared responsibility demands that we renew our sense of purpose, lay down the sword of partisanship and begin to shape the plow of progress that is our security, both physical and economic. Now more than ever the seriousness of purpose with which we approach our work must be heard in every committee room and, indeed, in every community. We hold a sacred trust with our constituents. Let us strive not only to succeed, but also to exceed their expectations.
Two years ago, my predecessor, Steve Rowe, faced with a somewhat different challenge, had this to say:
The good news is that we begin the session with a $250 million budget surplus for this biennium . . .The benchmark we should use in evaluating every proposal is whether they will improve the lives of Maine families. Will Maine people be healthier, better educated, better prepared, and more capable of achieving the quality of life they deserve?
Unfortunately, this session we do not begin with a $250 million budget surplus, but rather a projected $250 million shortfall. Nonetheless, Speaker Rowe’s words remain a noble guide and standard for the budgetary decisions we must make. As we prepare to meet our Constitutional obligation to balance the budget let us remember to ask:
Will Maine people be healthier?
Will Maine people be better educated?
Will Maine people be able to fulfill their economic and personal potential?
While today’s budget shortfall may seem a rigorous challenge, it pales in comparison to the budget shortfalls of the early 1990’s. That recession witnessed the loss of 34,000 jobs, high unemployment rates, shortfalls of $1 billion and the lack of sufficient reserve funds to address the downturn. Major budget cuts had to be made in all programs, including K-12 education, and the Governor and Legislature resorted to a series of budget gimmicks and taxes to address the revenue problem.
Today, Maine’s revenue shortfall of $250 million and the projected loss of 9,000 jobs are 4 times smaller than those of a decade ago. Our growth rate, while slower than in previous years, remains positive. Thanks to the fiscal prudence of the Legislature and the Chief Executive, our Rainy Day Fund holds substantial reserves, and the budget gimmicks and tax increases from the early 1990’s have been erased from the books. As a result, today we stand in a far better position to deal with a revenue shortfall than we did 10 years ago. So let us start the budget process by promising that we will not take one penny from K-12 education.
We are not here today to debate the futility or fruitfulness of programs; we are here to talk about people. The question is what investments in Maine people will bring long-term returns in prosperity and well being for our communities? What can we do that will lift up all people, that will raise all boats, in every part of the state?
Just last month I had the remarkable opportunity to be a guest of the government of Taiwan and to witness their first democratic legislative elections. While I learned very little Taiwanese or Mandarin, I did learn that the characters in their alphabet that stand for crisis also stand for opportunity. And, as I traveled throughout the island, I was often reminded of the tension between those concepts.
Taiwan is an island the size of West Virginia, physically isolated from the entire world, with its only neighbor, China, a constant source of military peril, only eighty kilometers away. And, yet, Taiwan has prospered. It has made itself into a vibrant democracy with 80% voter participation. It has made itself into a vital economic power - the seventh largest trading partner of the United States and the source of high-tech and biotech innovations. At the same time, it has made itself into a green island cherishing its environment. Crisis and opportunity.
We have many of the same challenges here in Maine. We often think these conditions are irreconcilable: that our economic strength is often in opposition to protecting our environment; that our geographic isolation is an insurmountable economic barrier. Taiwan’s example shows us that these difficulties can be conquered.
I am here to challenge you collectively and as individuals. We must set a course for our state, not just to balance the budget this year, but also to fulfill the ambitions and potential of our people. This is the challenge before us: how can we make our crisis into an opportunity?
To answer this question, we must examine what we know about our state and about our work.
One thing that I know is that all members of this body are deeply dedicated to their constituents and to this state. And I know that what makes us strong is our diversity.
What else do we know?
We know that Millinocket has gone from having the highest per capita income in Maine to having over 50% of people between the ages of 20 and 34 leave town to find work. This phenomenon is repeated in mill towns throughout Maine. Our challenge is to recommit ourselves to making all of Maine prosperous.
We know that roads are still seasonally posted, leaving rural business owners with no way to get their product to market. We know that Bangor is closer to Montreal than it is to Boston but that that trade route is practically closed. Our challenge is to build a first-class infrastructure that extends to all regions of the state.
We know that Maine lags behind the rest of New England in the percentage of residents with post-secondary degrees. Yet, we know that access to higher education has a direct impact on the potential income of our people to the tune of $1.7 million per person over a lifetime. Our challenge is to increase access to higher education.
We know that more Maine people receive their healthcare through their workplace than from any other source. We also know that premiums in the small group market are rising at a rate that is exponentially greater than the rate of inflation. Maine’s small businesses and Maine people can no longer afford these premiums. Our challenge is to think creatively and boldly fight for affordable quality health care for all Maine people.
We know that the census reported what most Maine people already knew, that Maine has among the highest per capita tax burdens as compared to earnings in the nation. We can debate whether it is first, sixth or twelfth, but that’s not a debate worth having. While we have lowered taxes over the last five years, our property tax is still too high, and our schools are still struggling to get the funding they need. Our challenge is to find a better way to fund our schools, to maintain our excellence in education and to bring relief to taxpayers in Maine.
Most important, we know Maine’s economy is forecasted for more hard times and is apt to linger in recession longer than the rest of the nation. We must minister to our economy. When the economy grows, we all benefit. Working together we will find opportunity in crisis and we will set a plan for the next generation of lawmakers so that we can fulfill Maine’s potential.
Those of us in government have a key role in re-establishing the public's faith in our safety, our economy and our future. The economic impact of September 11 is of great concern to everyone, especially those of us in the Legislature who, beginning this week, must begin to write a budget for the state and its citizens.
Twelve weeks from now we will adjourn, and history will be the judge of our efforts. In that short time we have a great opportunity to build on our record of accomplishment.
Last session we met the challenges of Maine people by working together as a body. We rose to the occasion with the kind of moderation, common sense and cooperation that Mainers deserve from their lawmakers. We proved that we could work together and overcome legitimate differences without becoming grid locked.
Let us work together throughout the session ahead to cross party divisions for the betterment of this great state.
Ours is the branch of government closest to the people of this state - the cauldron in which ideas are tested and the good ones put into law. Cherish and protect it. Maintain your independence as a strong, equal, separate branch of government in the tradition of those dedicated legislators who preceded you.
Our challenge is large. Nevertheless, Mainers - and this legislature - have in times past met large challenges and together found creative solutions. With all of your help - I remain optimistic that we may do so again.
Now lets get to work.