by George Smith
A legislative committee on Thursday will consider a bill that would allow counties to assume the planning duties of the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Let’s hope that someone at that hearing asks these key questions: Doesn’t Maine have too much government? Does it make sense to distribute the duties now handled by a single state agency to multiple state agencies and eight counties?
Perhaps it’s time to review the findings of the Brookings Institution in its 2006 “Charting Maine’s Future” widely praised report for GrowSmart Maine.
Outlining a key challenge, Brookings reported, “Maine’s often high costs of government and the unbalanced revenue system hinder the state’s ability to promote sustainable prosperity.”
This important report noted that Maine spent 15.1 percent of its total personal income on government, compared to a national average of 13.4 percent, that Maine ranks eighth among states for its total expenditures on government (13 percent above the national average), and Maine’s net expenditure was the highest among the 10 most rural states.
Apparently, we love government and just can’t get enough of it. Brookings reported that Mainers pay taxes to maintain a general government unit for every 2,570 people, while Californians get by with one government unit for every 65,770 citizens.
Brookings also reported that high property taxes “dominate Maine’s revenue picture,” causing all sorts of problems. And, guess what? Those property taxes are the source of revenue for almost all county spending. Worse, towns get a bill for those property taxes without any opportunity to determine the level of county spending, which is controlled by the Legislature.
In my successful 1978 campaign for Kennebec County commissioner, I posted road signs throughout the district, modeled on the old Burma Shave rhyming signs. One of my rhymes went like this: For its job — County government’s in tune — With an oxcart — For a trip to the moon!
An oxcart would never get us to the moon, and county government will never get us the efficient accountable government we need and expect. Do you disagree?
OK, quick, who is your county commissioner? And name three things that county government does for you.
For the last 30 years, the Legislature has been tinkering with county government, searching for an effective representative budgeting system and taking over county functions. Yet the county property tax continues to skyrocket.
I can’t claim credit for thinking up the analogy of the oxcart. Seventy years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have a system of county government whose general structure is no more fit for its purpose than an oxcart would be fit for modern transportation.”
A Task Force on Intergovernmental Structure established by former Gov. Angus King recommended a substantial restructuring of county government, one in which the state would offer much more funding in order to provide property tax relief at the local level. Didn’t happen.
And bills to abolish county government have gotten little consideration over the years, mostly because that would shift the burden of paying for those services from the local to the state level.
Better, I guess, to unload on the property tax, mostly because you don’t even know that some of your property tax slips through the fingers of your town or city government very quickly on its way to those county commissioners you don’t know.
Over the past 30 years, the state has taken over many county functions, including Superior and Probate courts and jails. Except for the sheriff’s position, which is part of Maine’s Constitution, county government is entirely a creature of the Legislature. Its powers and practices are closely controlled by the Legislature. County government could be abolished easily — and should be.
Yet here we are, on Thursday, considering a bill that would allow county government to expand. And some of LURC’s duties would go to the Department of Environmental Protection, some to the Maine Forest Service, and some would remain at LURC.
Why let one state agency do it all, when we can have three state agencies and eight counties involved?
In truth, turning LURC into an agency responsible for planning in the unorganized territories, while moving its regulatory functions to agencies more appropriate to the task, might make sense.
I am dumbfounded, however, by the inability of the state’s political leaders and legislators to see the futility of propping up an ancient unit of government that is far removed from the citizens, too expensive and dependent on a punishing property tax, and totally unprepared to handle planning duties for 10 million acres — half the state.
It’s time to put the oxcart in the Maine State Museum.