Representative Jorgensen on the Issues:
There are many things happening right now in Augusta that Maine citizens should be concerned about, from challenges to our public education system, to the fraying social safety net, a slackening of environmental protections, to tax proposals that threaten to put the state into a permanent fiscal crisis. I have spent the past five years working and fighting to strengthen or at least to hold the line in these areas during a very contentious legislature.
Portland is special...
I remain concerned that the special needs of Portland and other service center communities are not being met at the state level. Program cuts in Augusta end up on our doorstep - Portland's needs don't go away, and with each cut, serious new pressures are placed on our already stretched local property tax base.
Along with my colleagues in the Portland delegation, I have worked closely with city officials to assure that our actions in Augusta are in sync with Portland's needs and concerns. I have been particularly proud of our efforts to fund bonds for transportation, harbor improvements, facilities at USM, and other infrastructure. I am also happy that we were able to defend critical funding to help new immigrants and asylum seekers get on their feet. And thanks to careful work with the Department of Health and Human Services, I joined several area legislators to find a way to help preserve dental services for some of our most profoundly disabled residents following the closure of the Portland Dental Clinic.
Education is critical...
At the base of all economic development is education. A trained workforce depends on effective integration between the K-12 public schools, the community colleges, and our region's public and private universities. We need to assure that education is accessible and affordable - and we absolutely can't forget that education is more than just job training.
We also need to focus on making sure effective pre-k educational opportunities continue to be strong and affordable, so our youngest citizens can enter school ready to learn. We've made some progress on this in the last two sessions, but there is still a long way to go. Research shows again and again that failure to invest in this segment of the population will only cost our society more later.
The Maine Humanities Council, where I worked for more than a decade, has focused on providing resources and training for teachers, pre-k-12, and I am constantly reminded of the critical importance of energized and imaginative educators. Our current biennial budget included the largest increase ever in funds for K-12 public education, bringing the state closer than ever before to meeting the 55% funding level specified by Maine voters more than a decade ago.
You probably don't need me to point out that education costs have risen in recent years far faster than inflation. This is due largely to the fact that as personnel costs have risen dramatically (tied closely to the cost of health care) the state's per-student subsidy has declined. According to one Maine college president, 18 years ago the state subsidy accounted for about 70% of the cost of college, and now it is down to under 40%. This inversion has put pressure on the entire university system, though Maine has, for the past half decade, led the nation in keeping college tuition flat.
Maine is an extraordinary place...
The notion of “quality of place” has all but vanished from our statewide dialogue, and I think it’s important to recognize it as a critical economic development tool. By virtue of our location, we have high transportation energy costs. We also have relatively high taxes caused in part by a small, aging and relatively poor population spread out across an area the size of the rest of New England combined.
While there may be ways to make marginal improvements, those factors are not likely going to fundamentally change - The best thing we can use to attract business investment is use Maine itself – those elements and assets that make us different from other states. We have astonishing natural beauty, excellent cultural resources, a great sense of place, and lots of unused infrastructure in the form of historic downtowns. Let's devise policies that capitalize on and continue to preserve those assets.
Environmental protection is important for both moral and practical reasons. My Dad was the author of a Sierra Club natural history guide to New England and another book about the New England landscape, and so I was brought up with experiences that made me acutely aware of our region's natural resources, as well as ecology and conservation issues. We can't abandon our hard-won environmental protections. I am honored to have been endorsed by Maine Conservation Voters, and have earned a 100% score on my environmental voting record over three terms.
Let's not forget our most vulnerable...
In a time of economic volatility, we need to assure that every government expenditure is handled as efficiently and strategically as possible. That said, we should not allow reckless cuts in our social service programs, which have recently been framed more in terms of imagined fraud than about poverty and real need. Needs are real and serious in Portland, and in Maine as a whole. Of course we must work to assure efficiency in program delivery, and we should root out anyone who is, in fact, abusing Maine's social service network, but let's be clear: significantly more than 99% of Maine's state-based aid funds are spent lawfully, providing critical (and minimal) aid to low income families, disabled people, and, in many cases, people who are employed but who simply don't make enough to cover their expenses.
There is no way a minimum wage worker can afford a fair market rate apartment in Portland (or any other part of Maine or any other state). For information on this fact, read here.
Our greatest missed opportunity over the past three sessions has been our inability to pass legislation which would have allowed Maine to accept almost a million federal dollars EVERY DAY to provide health insurance for 70,000 low-income Mainers. Not only would this have filled a critical health care gap, it would reduce charity care in hospitals, provide thousands of jobs, and allow us to realize the intended benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Expansion of Medicaid remains a top priority for me.
I am deeply troubled by the chaos and disorder coming from the new administration in Washington, and worry that damaging and ill-conceived changes on the Federal level could have a devastating effect on Maine's finances and general government. Reacting to those changes is likely going to require increased effort by the Maine Legislature.
We have old houses and use lots of oil...
Maine has one of the oldest housing stocks in the country, along with the greatest percentage of houses heated with oil of any state. This is a serious vulnerability at a time when we can assume that, while they have been in a long period of decline, oil costs are only going to increase in the long run. What is already unaffordable will only become worse.
I was a strong supporter of the Solar Energy bill that emerged from the 127th legislature and its ultimate defeat by only two votes was for me the greatest disappointment of my legislative service. A similar narrow defeat in the 128th has added further to that disappointment. I will continue to fight for clean and affordable alternatives to fossil fuels.
And you could say that we eat oil, too
That's an unpalatable concept, I know, but just as heating oil is a vulnerability to Maine, the cost of shipping our food great distances will become less manageable if oil prices continue to rise (and they will). Maine was once the "breadbasket of New England". In an exciting turn of events, the number of active farms in Maine is now increasing. This has implications for new business around agricultural value-added products. This means better food, grown closer to home. I've supported bills to promote local agriculture, help local foods get into schools, and create markets for regional producers.
This is but one part of the emerging "buy local" movement, which is proving to be a powerful economic development principle, as well as a quality of life issue. One recent study in Portland indicated that the economic impact of buying from local businesses local is almost double of that that takes place when purchasing from national chains. We need to make sure that our state policies encourage new agricultural trends (how about more schools buying local produce, for example?). We need to embrace the ideas of permaculture and make them mainstream.