Cutler's plan stems from family roots, desire to invest in Maine's future
Belfast — Eliot Cutler wants Maine's youth to have better opportunities for furthering their education, and in doing so Cutler believes the state will prosper in the long run.
Cutler, an Independent candidate in the 2014 Maine gubernatorial race, grew up in Bangor. Due to his own family history, he said he knows the value of seizing opportunities and working to achieve goals in adverse conditions.
Cutler's grandfather came to America when he was 12 years old. He did not speak English when he arrived, Cutler told the Courier Publications Editorial Board during his visit to The Republican Journal office Thursday, Sept. 26.
The young immigrant started his new life in Maine as a peddler.
"He spent the next seven years walking from Bangor to Calais and back," said Cutler.
Cutler said his grandfather went on to start his own business, which he lost during the Great Depression, but he and Cutler's grandmother made sure all three of their daughters attended and completed college with graduate degrees. The oldest of the girls was Cutler's mother.
Cutler has two brothers who went on to become cardiologists, while Cutler's career led him to the White House.
In the late 1960s, after graduating from Harvard College, Cutler worked in the nation's capital for Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine on the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other laws aimed at improving the environment.
But without the hard work of his parents and grandparents, Cutler said, his story may have been quite different.
"I've been very successful, but I've also been really, really lucky," said Cutler.
Better opportunity, long-term growth
Cutler referred to the plan for Maine outlined in his recently released book titled "State of Opportunity" in which he addresses one of what he said is Maine's biggest challenge — it's aging population, and the steady stream of youth leaving Maine in search of success.
Much of Cutler's plan pushes for better investments in the state's competitive advantages: the existing industries of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
In the 1880s, Cutler said Maine had 6.9 million acres of land used for farming.
"There are 1.3 million acres today," he said.
The time it takes to get produce delivered to places like Boston or New York is much less than it was a century or so ago, and there is a growing demand for organic produce in Maine's neighboring states, Cutler said.
Focusing on doubling that amount of farmland by 2020, Cutler said, is a good start to increasing Maine's presence in those marketplaces, as well as giving young people a way to make a living here.
If a young person graduates from any two- or four-year college in America, and they want to settle here, Cutler said his plan includes a tax credit that would lower their income tax liability for every dollar they pay on their student loans.
The state's return on what Cutler said was a relatively small investment would be more jobs, as those youths would be farming or starting businesses.
"It's worth the incentive to bring these kids to Maine," he said.
Later in the interview, Cutler spoke of a revolving fund that would provide college tuition money to Maine high school graduates who wish to attend college.
"Maine has a very high graduation rate for high school, but a very low college completion rate," said Cutler.
The biggest barrier, he said, is the financial burden students and their families face. And if they do go to college, Cutler said, many are immediately saddled with student loan debt of $30,000 or more.
"They pay it back with a small percentage of his or her salary," said Cutler. "We don't need to be sending these kids out into the loan market."
Cutler also believes investing more in early childhood education now will bring dividends to the state years down the road, too.
Options in public education
Cutler sees the school consolidation across Maine that started with a 2007 mandate under Gov. John E. Baldacci as "a missed opportunity."
The law was faulted, he said, because it included financial penalties for districts that chose not to consolidate and no rewards for those that went through with mergers.
"When you create incentives, you create desire," he said.
And school consolidation did not address what he sees as a larger problem, he said, which is making public education a better experience for the students. Finding ways for teachers to measure their own success in the classroom and rewarding those who do the job well is a step in the right direction.
Cutler also believes families should have more choice about the kind of educational experience their children have.
"I'm for charter schools. We've got to see competition, options and choice," said Cutler. "I want to see the teaching profession become a profession again and not a craft guild."
The problem Maine has experienced for many years, he said, is a lack of interest on the part of state leaders to make investments that do not offer an instant outcome. The ideas Cutler is proposing will not provide that instant gratification, but he said they will lay a strong foundation for the future.
"These investments aren't going to pay off overnight," Cutler said. " ... We have to move past this idea of immediate payback."
To see more of Cutler's interview, tune in to Belfast Community Television Channel 2.
207-338-3333 ext. 109
Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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