[Much of this information comes courtesy of the Maine Development Foundation and a presentation given by their president, Laurie LaChance. LaChance, a Bowdoin graduate and former state economist under three different governors, is one of Maine’s shining lights and someone who is able to put issues affecting Maine into their proper context. I often think that one of the best things about my job is learning what the real issues are, as well as having some contact with some of the true “movers and shakers” of Maine, who often don’t get much "facetime" but possess the clearest vision for where we need to go.]--JB
One of the biggest challenges facing Maine, as well as most of the other New England states, is the aging of our population. In fact, Maine ranks numero uno, as being the oldest state in the nation, with a median age of 41.2 years. Vermont is number two, with New Hampshire at number six and Connecticut coming in at eighth, so New England is well-represented on the geriatric front, nationally.
This information matters, because it affects policy in our state. While we hear a lot of hot air about taxes being too high and that Maine just needs to cut their rate of taxation and employers will magically arrive in droves, bringing along great-paying jobs and we’ll all live happily ever after, what doesn't get talked about is the nuance needed to counter the anti-tax rhetoric. One of the reasons our taxes are high is specifically tied to the age of our population. Because of this, our citizens require more services. You can also add an additional piece of information to that, also—we are a rural state by almost every definition of the term and getting more so all the time.
Over the past 40 years, our population has left our service center communities—those cities where hospitals and the other necessary services reside—and have moved out into suburban areas and the rural hinterlands beyond. In 1960, less than half of our population, or 40 percent lived in rural areas of the state. Now, we find the number has risen to 55 percent and will continue to grow. So, not only are we the oldest state in the country, we are also the third most rural. As demands for healthcare, housing for seniors and transportation infrastructure continue to increase, state government’s capacity to meet those needs has decreased.
Maine has another issue that is problematic for our state—income disparity. While southern counties, like York and Cumberland have prospered and seen incomes rise steadily over the past two decades, rural counties like Franklin, Oxford, Somerset, Piscataquis and others have seen incomes fall and transfer payments from the state increase. Add to this formula rising housing prices, and suddenly housing for our seniors across Maine becomes a critical issue.
There are some positive developments concerning our demographics. The poverty rate among the elderly in Maine has decreased over the past 30 years. Also, our “brain-drain” has been halted and reversed, as in-migration to Maine has been on the plus side over the past five years.
I won’t dispute the notion that Maine’s property taxes are higher than most of us would like. Howver, while cutting taxes might sound like a solution and will continue to be “shouted from the rooftops” by many politicians across our state, the issue is more complex and multi-dimensional that that.
With the new legislature paying lip service to bi-partisanship, as they were sworn in, yesterday, we can only hope that they’ll put aside ideology and begin to address some important issues that Maine faces during this first decade of the 21st century.
This issue isn’t only germane to Maine. It has resonance at the national level and hopefully, we’ll hear candidates for president speak about it, as the horse race heats up for 2008. Based upon my experience, however, this issue isn't very "sexy," (old people rarely are, in our youth-obsessed culture) so it will find itself buried deeply within the policy section of each candidate, far from the air-brushed pictures and hollow talking points.