Maverick Maine charts its own course on key issues

State has become the nation's top reform lab

Folks in Maine take great pride in bucking conventional wisdom - in taking feisty and independent stances on everything from war to politics to health care. And even breakfast food.

Back in 1839, for instance, Maine risked losing a big chunk of territory to the British. So it took the unusual step of declaring war on Britain. It's the only time a state has threatened to attack a foreign power.

Maine was also the first state to elect an independent governor - and to send one woman to both houses of Congress. As for food, Yankees here still consider apple pie a perfectly nutritious breakfast item. (Try explaining that to Californians.)

Now this independent streak is leading to big policy differences with the Bush administration, differences that symbolize growing gaps between Washington and many states.

• Maine recently became the first state to pass a law to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. It's quite different from President Bush's approach to the issue.

• It was the first state to seek a waiver from Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind education policy - and is now part of a

wider rebellion on the issue.

• Prompted by federal inaction, Maine recently passed a first-in-the-nation plan to provide affordable health insurance to every resident within five years - a costly idea at a time of big state budget crises. The plan is called Dirigo Health after Maine's Latin motto, which means, "I lead."

"It's a kind of cranky independence," says former Gov. Angus King of Mainers' approach to life. He served two terms as Maine's second independent governor.

A century of solitude

Mr. King observes that for nearly 100 years, almost every worker was either a fisherman, farmer, or logger. "Those are more or less solitary pursuits," he says. That forges individualism and inventiveness - and even an affinity for duct tape. Last year two Maine teens used the stuff to make a tux and gown for their prom.

Maine's geographic remoteness means it's more insulated from national trends and fads. And its proximity to Canada means more liberal ideas permeate its border. It's also essentially a poor state where greater necessity makes for more invention.

The Dirigo plan stems from the state's lack of affluence and its fast-rising health-care costs. Between 1991 and 1998, Mainers saw their medical costs jump more than those of any other state, according to federal data. And nearly one-fifth of non-elderly residents - some 180,000 people - spent at least part of last year with no insurance, according to a state-sponsored survey.

The popular new Democratic governor, John Baldacci, recently signed the Dirigo plan into law. It will levy a surcharge on health insurance that will help pay for insurance for the poor. The plan also encourages hospitals to prevent fees from rising more than 3.5 percent per year. It's a dramatic approach - with plenty of free-market critics. But given the great need for affordable health insurance, it's being widely watched as a national test case.

Maine's health care policies also landed on the nation's radar screen in May, when it won a high profile battle in the US Supreme Court to implement its Maine Rx plan. It combines the buying power of the state's 1.2 million residents to strong-arm drug manufacturers into lowering prescription drug prices. Gray-haired Mainers' frequent trips to Canada - where drugs are subject to price controls - gave rise to the plan. Canada also figures into Maine's new climate-change law, which grew out of meetings in 2001 between Canadian and New England leaders. Maine plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 - and eventually by as much as 80 percent - by encouraging state companies to pollute less. It's reminiscent of the Kyoto Protocol, which the Bush administration pulled out of in 2001.

Pragmatic Yankees realized that even minor climate changes threatened their economy. "Our marine fisheries could be impacted by warmer water temperatures. Our forest-products industry could be affected by changes in tree composition. And coastal areas could face big property losses if water levels rise," says state Rep. Ted Koffman (D).

Nearly 90 percent of Maine's land is forested - more than in any other state. And forests are a key economic driver: For instance, the state is America's No. 1 producer of toothpicks.

Going against the flow

Maine's independent spirit has also collided with Washington's desire to boost standards in education. Mainers are worried that the No Child Left Behind law will heap new financial burdens on the state. The Bush administration denies this, and rejected Maine's waiver request. Yet there's a growing feeling that "Washington should put its money where its mouth is or close its mouth," says Patrick Phillips, Maine's deputy education commissioner.

Like other rural states, Maine is worried about a provision that allows kids in failing schools to switch to another school in their district. But only one of Maine's districts has more than one high school, so switching would be largely impossible.

Maine isn't alone in harrumphing at federal policies. On education, homeland security, election reform, and tax-rate changes, states are chafing at new 'preemptive' policies that override or overburden states, says Carl Tubbesing, deputy director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Oh, and about Maine's conflict with the Brits: They stuck a compromise before any shots were fired. Yet the song Mainers sang as they marched to defend their state in 1839 might still apply today to some residents' views of Washington: Britannia shall not rule Maine/ nor shall she rule the water/ They've sung that song full long enough/ Much longer than they oughter.

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