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Wild heart of the young
BY AL DIAMON


Everyone in Augusta — Republicans, Democrats, Greens, conservatives, liberals, wackos — believes the state has to do something to stop young people from leaving Maine. Such unanimity is a sure sign this can’t be a real problem.

Or if it is, it’s not one the government is likely to solve.

Which is not to say the governor and Legislature won’t spend a lot of money trying. After all, it’s a long-standing tradition.

The out-migration of Maine’s youth has been a political issue since at least the end of the Civil War. In 1866, Governor Joshua Chamberlain listed it as one of his administration’s top priorities. To no visible effect.

Throughout the 20th century, pols of all persuasions promised to halt the steady flow of people under 35 to greener pastures, brighter lights, and bigger paydays in other states. The result: A net total of 1200 young people left Maine each year between 1995 and 2000.

Now, we’ve embarked on a third century of ineffectuality. And everybody has an answer. Usually, an expensive answer.

Portland talk-radio station WGAN hosted an on-air discussion last week of a plan to exempt everyone under 30 from the state income tax. I didn’t hear the show, so I can only wonder why, after living here for three decades and accumulating a tidy nest egg, beneficiaries of this tax break wouldn’t feel free to move to Florida, where there’s no state income tax.

"Until Maine becomes competitive in [research and development], we’ll continue to see more young people moving out of Maine than moving in," wrote state Representative Sean Faircloth in a February 9 op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, in which he called for funding all that new R&D with big hikes in taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and soda. Hey, kids, you won’t be able to afford to drink, smoke, or put on weight in Maine, but stick around, anyway.

House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings has a different solution. But not a cheaper one. Cummings wants the state to approve a $50-million bond issue to pay off up to $15,000 of the college loans of students who agree to remain in Maine and take jobs in fields where there are shortages of qualified workers. The state already has such a program for teachers and dentists, which costs about $1.2 million a year. Forty-two states offer similar deals, despite what a 2002 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy called "weak or nonexistent evidence of their effectiveness." But it sure makes it look like they’re doing something.

In fact, most young people, by the time they graduate from high school, have developed an irresistible urge to go someplace else, try something new and generally get the hell away from their parents. (Maybe they’d stick around if we forced Mom and Dad to leave.) This restlessness is probably imprinted in their DNA, triggered by laws of nature, not laws passed by the Legislature. It can’t be changed by raising taxes — or even by lowering them. It won’t be altered by offers of money, jobs, or hot sex. At least, not for long.

Some of these youthful migrants will return, drawn by family ties or the state’s natural beauty or the nightlife in the Old Port. Some won’t ever come back. There’s nothing anyone, least of all a politician, can do about that.

So stop wasting time trying to subvert the inevitable, and get back to work on stuff that matters to those of us who still live here.

TIMEBOMB

Reason number 692 why the current Legislature will not extend or abolish term limits: As a keen observer of the political process pointed out in a recent email, Democrats, who control both chambers by narrow margins, are unlikely to tinker with the law because it offers them an advantage in the next election.

In 2006, the Dems will lose six members of the state House of Representatives to term limits, but 13 Republicans will be escorted from office. In the state Senate, only GOP floor leader Paul Davis will be termed out.

Even better for the donkey party, many of the departing House Republicans represent districts that could swing either way, while the Dem retirees are mostly from safe seats.

LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE

I’m guilty of making Governor John Baldacci and the Legislature look better than they are. In a column two weeks ago, I erroneously claimed the expansion of the Homestead Exemption in the governor’s tax-relief bill required cities and towns to pick up half the cost of the added tax break or about $3000 per house. In fact, the measure forces municipalities to cover 50 percent of the entire exemption or $6500 per dwelling.

I apologize to our elected officials for any undeserved improvement in their reputations I may have caused.

Errors, omissions, and observations without limit may be emailed to me at ishmaelia@gwi.net

The Politics and Other Mistakes archive.

Issue Date: February 18 - 24, 2005
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