By now, most Mainers have heard about the scandal in Augusta, involving $16 million dollars of our hard-earned taxes that went up in smoke in the bungled Great Northern Paper tax giveaway.

For those of you just catching up with the story, here are the highlights, if you could call them that. We handed over a ton of money to some slick hucksters in exchange for vague promises about jobs. They took the money, shuttered the mill and went onto the next gullible state.

Thanks to a two-part series, “Payday at the Mill,” on April 19 and “Shrewd financiers exploit unsophisticated Maine legislators on taxpayers’ dime,” on April 26, we’re now learning that this case is just one among many.

As I wrote last week, the heart of the problem is that politicians are so anxious to take credit for an improving economy that they’re giving away blank checks whenever someone utters the word “jobs.” Making matters worse, they seem wholly uninterested in whether the jobs are actually created. That’s left us with a landscape littered with bad deals and shattered dreams.

This approach to giving away money would put most lenders out of business within months. Imagine a local bank that gave out mortgages whenever someone showed up with a picture of a nice house. No title checks. No collateral. No proof of construction. Just vacant lots and a dwindling population.

That pretty much describes our approach to creating jobs with tax breaks, and it’s been a dismal failure for half a century. The biggest reason is politicians who act like bankers when they lack the training, professional skills and discipline to manage loans or make investments, which is what tax breaks amount to.

This scandal has gotten the public’s notice, and they are not amused. Everyone’s looking to the governor, who is supposed to be the champion of the little guy against the extravagant waste of government. Gov. Paul LePage has been, for the first time, stone silent, except to propose that we weaken the rules on tax breaks even further.

What’s even worse is the silence from the “waste, fraud and abuse” crowd. Where is the outrage about able-bodied but shiftless schemers and political shenanigans? Why isn’t the conservative think tank, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, railing against this government excess? Those guys usually launch a news release whenever a government employee drops a quarter or leans on a shovel.

Where are all these indignant conservatives now, when a real and rampant abuse of taxpayer dollars is right before our eyes? Are we all supposed to jump on welfare cheats but look the other way when big business has both hands in the cash register?

Lots of folks are justifiably angry about this whole mess, but anger is useful only if it produces positive change. While politicians will want to blame each other, find scapegoats and tinker with programs, it’s up to the rest of us to keep our eye on the ball. We need a top-to-bottom overhaul of the way we give out tax breaks and how we measure their impact.

That means asking harder questions about tax breaks. Negotiating better. Getting promises in writing and measuring results. And when jobs aren’t created, it means taking our money back.

By some estimates, these tax breaks now cost us a half-billion dollars a year. For all the people who want to “clean house” in government, this is where to start. We can’t focus on the dust balls that welfare fraud creates while ignoring this truckload of sludge in the living room.

Making government work better starts with getting these tax breaks under control. The money squandered there could be used to create real jobs, with partners in the private sector who are rooted here and who care about Maine. Or it could be used to lower taxes, improve schools or access to colleges, fix roads and help the truly needy. Instead it’s going to yachts in the Virgin Islands owned by well-heeled insiders.

We’ve got to stop chasing extravagant promises and quick fixes for the economy and start building from within. Imagine what would have happened if we’d taken the $16 million from this Great Northern rip-off and put it into a thousand small businesses and startups in Maine, each receiving $16,000 for creating one new, quality job.

Instead of paying for nothing, we’d have a thousand new jobs in Maine and a thousand healthier Maine businesses. That’s solid, bottom-up growth, folks. It’s not headline-grabbing, but it’s real.

It’s time we started investing in ourselves, for a change.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]


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