There are many reasons Maine will never be like Utah, which consistently ranks at the top of the business-climate rankings that rarely reflect well on this state.
Utah is the youngest state in the country, because of a high birth rate and bustling economy, the mirror opposite of Maine. The low cost of doing business in Utah would be difficult to match in Maine, which is at the end of the road in a high-cost region.
And Utah is largely Republican and Mormon, making it one of the most religiously and politically homogeneous states in the country, and giving it a shared philosophy and vision.
Maine can’t match that homogeneity. No other state can, really. But the lesson from Utah is that Maine must find an area of common agreement — however narrow — and make a long-term commitment to making it successful.
The most reasonable place to start is with higher education. Calculated, sustained investment is necessary in this areas to build a better workforce, and to fuel the state economy.
Speaking last week at the annual conference of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, Alan Hall, an entrepreneur and angel investor from Utah, said his state has set a goal to have 66 percent of all adults hold a college degree or technical certificate by 2020.
That’s lofty, as no other state has reached that level. Utah, at 43 percent, is in the middle of the pack nationwide, but climbing, with state colleges and universities increasing the number of degrees awarded by about 4 percent each of the past three years.
Maine’s rate is around 38 percent, below the New England average. An effort launched in 2004 aimed to increase the rate to 56 percent by 2020, though that effort was repurposed by a new coalition last year, with the reformed goal of 50 percent.
It wouldn’t be easy to hit even that lower target under normal circumstances, and the higher education situation in Maine is hardly normal.
University of Maine System trustees last week approved a 2014-15 budget that will cut 157 positions, and a five-year plan for the system calls for an additional $60 million in workforce and facility reductions.
The system is in need of restructuring, for sure. Overall spending is only part of that change, but it is a significant part.
Maine’s financial support for higher education has been declining steadily for years. According to a report by the Mitchell Institute, a group concerned with raising college aspirations for Maine students, state spending on higher education as a percentage of personal income has dropped 40 percent since 1990, and it is at its lowest level since 1967.
Raising the state’s financial commitment to its colleges and universities is only part of creating a more highly skilled workforce. Too many Maine students come out of high school unprepared for the next level, a problem that demands reform stretching back to early education.
By failing to invest properly in the state’s higher education system, however, Maine is playing a long, drawn-out, losing game. Only by taking seriously the state’s commitment to its higher institutions of learning can Maine expect to raise personal incomes and provide businesses with the manpower necessary to grow.
That’s something everyone can get behind.