'Tough times build character'
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Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 12/28/2009

AUGUSTA -- Gov. John Baldacci sat down recently with the Kennebec Journal to talk about his goals for the new year, and to reflect on his time in office.

Earlier this month, the Democrat unveiled his proposal to fill a $438 million hole in the state budget, which will likely be the dominant topic of the four-month legislative session that begins Jan. 6.

First elected in November 2002, Baldacci is entering his eighth and final year in office.

KJ: What are your priorities for the 2010 legislative session?

Baldacci: It's the budget and the economy. When I took office, we were one of the highest-taxed states in the country. People were seeing economic opportunities were going elsewhere, not in Maine.

Since I've been governor, there's 1,000 fewer state employees. There's been a workforce reduction of 8.8 percent and, at the same time, we've still provided a high-quality level of services.

We've provided tools for economic development. Pine Tree Zones have been expanded statewide. We have over 200 businesses, 3,000 jobs and $200 million of payroll that have utilized that.

We've established community colleges to build up people's education and training.

And while we're still in a deep recession, hopefully toward the end of a deep recession, we're starting to see our unemployment gradually slowly improve where we're a full two points lower unemployment than the nation.

In a growth area, the energy area is where we can see tremendous potential and growth. I'm excited about the deep-sea wind initiative, weatherization.

That, along with our wood resource, some tidal resource and solar resources, I think Maine is very well positioned to be a beneficiary of domestic renewable energy like we were in our heyday.

KJ: In the last year alone, state revenues have dropped more than $1 billion and the supplemental budget is back to 2004 spending levels. How has that affected what you've been able to do as governor?

Baldacci: Well, you certainly plan for different times. The thinking was, when I first came in, we had a structural gap of over $1 billion, the highest tax burden in the country. We were going to address that without raising taxes. That was the campaign, that was the call. Frankly, there were a lot of people who didn't think it could be done without raising taxes.

We thought we were going to be able to take advantage of an economy on the upswing, but in fact we've been in the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

But we have to adjust and we have to be nimble. While I never thought I would be so involved in all the restructuring and the efficiencies we've been trying to gain, I think in the real world that's what's taking place in businesses and families.

I've looked at it as an opportunity to maybe kind of help out future generations. Let me do the tough work. Let me do the groundwork that needs to rebuild the foundation so it's a more efficient, highly collaborative structure that's going to serve the people and families and businesses in Maine, but do it so it isn't going to cost them as much.

It's not a hand that you would have sought, but it's one you're dealt and you've got to be able to address it. I'm always reminded, my mother used to say, tough times build character. I'm thinking that I'm building a lot of character along the way.

When they look back at this period, they will realize that a lot of the benefits they have in the future are from the hard work, not of myself and my administration, but of the Legislature, the people of Maine. There's been a lot of struggling and a lot of sacrificing and I tell people it would be too bad if all was washed away all of a sudden once the economy starts to improve.

It would really cause me great pain and anguish to think of all of the hard work and efforts have been washed away.

KJ: After seven years in office, 2010 will be your last. Are there things other than the budget that you'd like to get done before you leave?

Baldacci: The energy stuff, I really get passionate about.

I've been through three energy crises. I remember back in the early 1970s, gasoline wasn't sold on Sunday. It hurt a lot of businesses and families, including my own, at that time.

It was mostly contrived because oil and gas were in tankers that were in the Penobscot River. People realized this was something OPEC held over our heads.

Maine is one of the most oil-dependent states. We have an opportunity to really change that paradigm. We now have an administration in Washington, with President Obama and the congressional delegation, there are so many tools in the recovery package for new energy generation, new energy research and development, tax credits, transmission.

This is something I get very easily excited about. Every home we weatherize, every appliance that is not oil-related, is a barrel of oil less that we're getting.

As far as I'm concerned, they can drown in that oil.

I'm so determined to set a course for the state. I've talked to the president about it. The war we should be fighting is the war on oil and to become as energy independent as possible.

KJ: You've been an elected official pretty much all of your adult life. What are some of the most difficult decisions you've had to make?

Baldacci: When I was a member of Congress, when we voted on the Iraq War resolution and I voted against it. That was just before the election for governor and they were trying to make it a political issue.

I just felt like they were leading us into it. They didn't have the information and documentation. It felt like it was just more getting off from where we should. That was a difficult decision because most of the popular opinion was on the other side.

There have been issues each step along the way.

I was just very lucky. I had a tremendous mother and father. I had a wonderful upbringing with a focus on public service. I always look at this as a temporary service that we're all called upon to do. Whether it's city council, Congress or governor, you're in a different position but you still have the same values and you still have the same initiatives.

KJ: How do you think Mainers will remember your time as governor and you as a leader?

Baldacci: You never know. My dad always said you do the right thing for the right reasons and the politics will work itself out.

What we're trying to do is challenging and difficult. It's the worst time since the Great Depression. What you're trying to do is make changes that might not be appreciated while you are going through it but, when they look back at it, it will be easier. And they will realize, why didn't we do it sooner?

It's not until we run up against a crisis that we act, or change to act.

As they evaluate the things we've done and how we've done them, I'm very proud of the things we've been able to do.

I've got the best group of people around me and working with me. (Deputy Chief of Staff) David (Farmer) and (Deputy Director of Communications) Joy (Leach), (Chief of Staff) Jane (Lincoln) and (Department of Administrative & Financial Services Commissioner) Ryan (Low). I've got a core group and it always seems to get better. I've been very lucky.

KJ: What do you make of the fact that there's 20-plus people running for governor?

Baldacci: I think it's always good to get more people involved in the political process and get more education out. I often feel like people will run for office from what they read, hear or see, but it's not the whole story.

I think it's important for people to get involved in the political process. The more that the press holds them to the same standards in terms of, show me, if you don't like the governor's cuts, what cuts do you like? Where would you go?

You have to do it in Maine and you have to show people how you're going to do it.

I think a lot of times people are getting these 30-second sound bites and it's not very deep.

KJ: Will you be involved at all in the election?

Baldacci: My job is to do this job and do it all the way, full throttle right up until that point. I'll be watching it, like all the people of Maine. I'll be listening to what they have to say, and not say.

Right now, I think my responsibility is to get as much of this work done. My goal is to make sure the next administration has an opportunity to really hit the ground running and not have a lot of the same challenges.

Susan Cover -- 620-7015