Down East 2013 ©
For years, lawmakers and political pundits in Maine were obsessed with one number; the state’s ranking by the Tax Foundation, showing Maine residents paying one of the highest percentages of their income in taxes of any state.
In 2008 the Foundation fixed the way it calculated tax rates and reran the numbers from the past decade. It turned out that Maine was actually fifteenth in the nation in taxes and only .3% off the national average. At no time had the state ever been higher than fifth.
Despite this reevaluation, there’s little chance that our tax rate will leave our state discourse, especially now that the Democrat-backed proposal to reform the tax code is headed to a veto referendum.
Our tax ranking matters, but it’s not the only number we should focus on, or even the most important one.
That honor might go instead to the number six.
Sixth is how Maine ranks in terms of the financial burden we place on students attempting to access higher education, according to a 2006 report by the Education Policy Institute.
EPI compared the cost of a public four-year degree in every state in the country (and the ten Canadian provinces) and factored in relevant details like median income and the availability of financial aid. According to their rubric, Maine is forty-forth in affordability.
While taxes affect everyone, to one degree or another, the cost of higher education is a burden we place only on one of the most important populations in our state – the educated young people we’re counting on to help Maine survive in the knowledge economy.
We're going to be hearing a lot about jobs in the next few months. Every Republican gubernatorial candidate and most of the Democrats are trying to make it their signature issue. (Green Party candidate Lynne Williams, on the other hand, has apparently decided to focus instead on opposing the war in Afghanistan , an important state issue.)
But what they're usually talking about when they say “jobs” is immediate jobs, jobs created next week or next year, and the strategies they discuss and talents they claim reflect that. It’s great if our governor can work with specific companies and convince CEOs to move their operations to Maine, but that doesn’t solve our long-term problems of employment and competitiveness. Higher education does.
I disagree with Rosa Scarcelli on specific details in several policy areas, including clean elections and health care reform, but one area where she’s currently ahead of the other Democratic candidates is in her plans to prepare for the future of the state’s economy. In chapter one  of her campaign platform, she laments the fact that Maine ranks dead last in science and engineering graduate enrollments and pledges to increase scholarships and grants, the most effective form of student aid.
I hope we hear much more about this issue as the race solidifies.
We should be hearing more about it now.
For instance, Maine passed the landmark Opportunity Maine legislation in 2008, which was meant to allow more students to access higher education and get more of them to stay in Maine afterwards. We should be hearing how well it’s working, from both politicians and the media.
Another example: last month, when a plan to raise tuition at Maine’s public universities was approved, the vote of the trustees got plenty of ink but there wasn’t a single media source that asked what this will mean for current and future students. There wasn’t even a single student quoted in any of the coverage.
I wonder how we rank on a scale of states furiously ignoring future problems.