Reviving the Lost Art of Looking Ahead
The Guy Gannett House in Augusta is a museum now, but I still think of it as the policy percolator it once was, brewing up fresh ideas.
In its days as the Maine State Planning Office, I worked under its roof – packed with eight other employees in a garret that was more rabbit hutch than professional suite. Fortunately, the cramped quarters were offset by expansive thinking and an esprit de corps among the eclectic SPO staff.
Collectively, most of us served as catalysts and coordinators, helping new environmental and economic programs to coalesce. It was, as one colleague recalls, “the place to put it together.” Research at SPO helped to identify what defines Maine ecologically and culturally – through a host of initiatives from the Maine Rivers Study to the Land for Maine’s Future Program.
SPO’s long-term vision ended in 2011, when former Gov. Paul LePage – seemingly more focused on the bottom line than the big picture – disbanded the office. He didn’t believe he needed policy research, reflects former state economist Charles Colgan, “which was wrong.”
SPO served two important and overlapping functions, providing policy research and helping administer programs that cut across many agencies. “When it operated best, SPO was the governor’s instrument for implementing his or her agenda across departmental lines,” recalls Richard Barringer, who served as SPO director from 1981 to 1986. “Getting line agencies to work together and to look ahead could be very difficult to do.”
To help shape her vision, Mills has chosen Hannah Pingree, a former Speaker of the House and four-term legislator, to establish and run the newest iteration of SPO, now called the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (and housed in the Burton Cross building).
Pingree seems undaunted by the myriad challenges that may get thrown her way. She acknowledges the need for a clearly defined mission and budget, given that “everyone’s got all these expectations,” but is heartened by the energy she has encountered within and beyond state offices.
Following a recent E2Tech meeting, Pingree says she was encircled by a “sea of professionals, students and others asking ‘how can I help?’” And, she adds, “I’ve had overwhelming interest from incredibly smart people who want to join this office.” The greatest challenge, she anticipates, will be to find ways to harness that widespread interest in moving Maine forward.
Alongside work on the opioid crisis and early childhood education, Pingree expects the office to focus initially on climate and energy. Plans are underway to establish a Maine Climate Council, an ongoing entity with focused work groups (five are envisioned) that will help shape policy and report back to the public.
Its first job will be updating the state’s Climate Action Plan, outlining ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions (climate mitigation) and to help communities and industries cope with climate impacts (climate adaptation). The initial plan dates to 2004.
“Prior to the last eight years,” Pingree emphasizes, “we were doing this work.”
Under the Trump administration, federal climate policy has ground to a halt, leaving states without much technical or financial support. “The state is not going to be able to build its capacity off of federal dollars and cheap state matching dollars” as it once did, Colgan notes.
The federal government is no longer “in the business of supporting state government to do things,” he says. “Now, resources will need to come largely from within, which means they’ll be very limited. And, it will take more resources today because the problems are much bigger and more complicated.”
To help support shared climate action, 22 states have joined a bipartisan coalition, the U.S. Climate Alliance, that is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Maine recently joined the Alliance, and Pingree hopes the broader collaboration will inform its planning.
Mills wants Maine to be 100 percent reliant on renewable energy by 2050, and clean energy measures draw broad bipartisan support. But planning efforts also must encompass neglected facets of climate change – like adaptation.
“There is almost no money going to this,” Colgan notes. “And no one is really looking on a sustained basis” at its potential economic impacts.
He cites the example of the fires of 1947, which burned more than 1,200 homes and seasonal cottages on Mount Desert Island and in York County. Using today’s property values, he estimates that another drought-induced fire season like that could result in losses of more than $500 million.
Another area that deserves attention, says ecologist and SPO alumni Janet McMahon, is the potential for Maine forests to enhance climate mitigation – storing more carbon in trees and soil through improved forest practices. With the growth of carbon emissions trading, Maine landowners that practice sound forest stewardship could potentially benefit from new carbon markets. Maine’s forests also represent a “climate-resilient landscape” of global significance that could help protect diverse species over time.
McMahon anticipates that Maine will see an influx of people due to climate migration, raising questions of how to manage growth while protecting the state’s natural resources.
That requires giving weight to both social and ecological considerations, notes Frank O’Hara, a former staff member and consultant to SPO. “You can’t do anything about climate change without community revitalization,” he says – tackling problems like public transit and housing costs.
The interconnected planning challenges that await Pingree’s team are formidable, but many view the new office with what Barringer calls “tempered optimism.” An effective planning arm of the new administration could rebuild “people’s confidence in government to do something,” O’Hara says. “That would be so uplifting.”
© Marina Schauffler, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.