Near the end of his first year in office, the governor is planning for coming years.

AUGUSTA – The subjects of Gov. John Baldacci’s two biggest victories during his first year as Maine’s chief executive continue to be two of his biggest challenges.

Months after shoring up the state budget without a broad-based tax hike and winning enactment of the Dirigo Health plan for universal coverage, Baldacci says both achievements will demand additional effort to be sustained.

“Continue to stay on top of the budget, continue to stay on top of the health care and implementation of that program,” he says, looking toward the New Year.

Remaining high on the agenda as well will be “continuing to restructure state government, regionalization and efficiency at all levels” and tax relief – perhaps the biggest unrealized goal in 2003 – “continuing to work on that.”

Home in Maine after eight years as the state’s 2nd Congressional District representative, Baldacci pays close attention to some of the issues he faced in the U.S. House, such as agriculture.

But the 48-year-old Democrat likes to suggest that his formative experience in Washington was his exposure to extreme partisanship. His distaste for that style of politics was so great, he maintains, because operating on the basis of party label has been personally anathema to him and is basically foreign to Maine.

“I really made a pledge to myself … that’s not the way I want to work,” Baldacci said during an interview in his State House office.

“I’ve never been partisan, I don’t intend to be. I think you’ve got to solve problems.

“I’m proud to be a Democrat, I’m proud of my Democratic heritage. But I know also that we’ve got to be about the people of this state first and foremost. And that’s really going to be the kind of message that I’m going to give at the State of the State,” Baldacci says.

For much of his first year as governor, Baldacci won plaudits from Republicans in the Legislature’s House and Senate minorities, both for policy positions such as his stand against taxes and pro-business orientation and for an attitude often described as attentive and open.

Democratic allies, gratified to have one of their own in the Blaine House for the first time since the mid-1980s, have provided him with voting majorities and kind words of their own.

At the same time, concern over the impact of budget cutbacks has prompted some complaints. Baldacci suggests that his commitment to bolstering the business climate as a way to promote job growth requires fiscal prudence that incorporates a cold-eyed evaluation of spending priorities.

“It’s easy to say yes but it’s a responsibility of this office to make sure that we’re watching out for the overall economy,” the former state legislator from Bangor says.

Returning to the point repeatedly, Baldacci measures that overall economy as still fragile, at least in Maine, and says state government cannot afford to let up on at least modest moves toward austerity.

“I’ve got to continue to give the leadership that says no, it’s not over yet,” he says.

A bit more specifically, he adds, “on the tax issue, it can’t be the first solution. … Additional revenues are going to solve some of the structural things we have going on.”

According to state officials, seasonally adjusted nonfarm wage and salary jobs in Maine declined by 200 to 603,600 from November 2002 to November 2003.

Job losses occurred in paper, computers and electronic equipment, and textile and apparel manufacturing, while the state registered gains in educational and health services and retail trade, officials said.

“We’re holding our own,” Baldacci says. “It’s been tough. We came out of a tough period.”

The first enrollments in the fledgling Dirigo Health plan are half a year away and already skeptics are raising questions about its feasibility.

“I think they’re trying to say that Dirigo is a government program,” Baldacci says. “But Dirigo is an independent agency which is going to go out – and has to go out – and solicit small businesses (and) individuals.”

Likening the health care initiative to Maine’s effort to make workers’ compensation insurance more affordable, Baldacci adds: “It’s going into a field and trying to create a free market competition.”

Settling into the new job, Baldacci says the first family’s private life is comfortable.

“The sad part is mum and dad aren’t here. The good part is the family’s together under one roof,” he says.

From shopping and dining to other recreational pursuits, Baldacci says the capital has been welcoming.

“We just love the area. People have been great. … I have to admit after 12 years in the state Senate, I thought I knew Augusta and I really didn’t,” he says.

AP-ES-12-25-03 1132EST

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