State government’s ability to respond to future needs is diminished

As part of this year’s state budget cuts, the Governor just may have cut off his nose to spite his face.

On July 1, the State Planning Office, an office of the Executive Department, will be gone; its elimination proposed by Governor LePage and executed by the Legislature.

The State Planning Office was created in 1968 under Governor Ken Curtis to help state government respond to emerging problems, especially when no one, single department of state government has all the answers.

Today, issues are more complex than ever imagined in 1968. A governor needs a way to bring disparate parties to the table, reconcile differences, and coordinate effective responses. This entity needs to speak with the authority of the chief executive to advance his or her agenda. This was the State Planning Office’s role.

Take permitting of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. When one of these facilities is proposed to be located in Maine, how does the governor effectively respond to a federal process in a way that protects all of the state’s varying and sometimes differing interests? Consider that:

The department of environmental protection’s mission is to assure that air, land, and water quality are not degraded;

The department of marine resources looks out for the fish and marine mammals and resolves conflicts between LNG vessels and commercial and recreational fishing boats;

The department of public safety and emergency management agencies want plans in place to prevent accidents;

State financial planners expect someone to answer for the clean-up costs in the event of a spill;

The department of transportation worries about trucks going in and out of the terminal and the impact on local traffic;

Maine’s Native American Tribes want to preserve sacred burial sites and aboriginal fishing rights;

Also involved is the Canadian government, coast guard, homeland security, other state agencies, local police and fire departments, and neighbors. In recent years, the State Planning Office’s role was to bring these factions together, coordinate a response to federal regulators on behalf of the governor, and provide a point for impacted communities, residents, and developers alike to access information. And this is only one example of the work the office did on behalf of the governor.

Preceding governors questioned the value of the State Planning Office. Governor King advocated for its elimination during his campaign, but then used it to craft some of his most sweeping policy initiatives —performance budgeting, smart growth, a bold research and development agenda, and the restoration of the Kennebec River by removing the 160-year-old Edwards Dam. It took  Governor Baldacci nine months to appoint his State Planning Office director and only then did he begin to use the office for  everything from acquiring and overseeing a state-owned landfill to save mill jobs, to capping government spending to reduce the tax burden on Mainers, to capitalizing on the economic advantages of Maine’s quality of place.

Without a state planning office, the executive will be less robust. Governors will be forced to react to others’ ideas, lacking the sheer horsepower to move a policy agenda forward.  Maine’s governors have always had very small staffs. If future governors want to advance more than one or two major policy initiatives; they will be constrained by the lack of staff capacity once provided by the State Planning Office.

Others that have come before us recognized the need for the State Planning Office. On January 19, 1968, Representative Rideout of Manchester said on the floor of the Maine House in support of the creation of the State Planning Office:

This bill does provide for the establishment of a State Planning  Office which would put all phases of planning, state, local and regional under  one roof…. This bill provides for a correlation of planning on all levels. I feel this is desirable for planning as a team effort for all departments and should be directed by one office answerable to the Governor….

With the elimination of the State Planning Office, the governor’s office has lost its staunchest advocate.

Note: Until April of this year, Jody Harris worked at the State Planning Office. She served in a policy role there for 17 years under three governors.