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Mayor says Maine should be two states

Jim Soule, mayor of South Portland, Maine, ignited debate earlier this month when he proposed in his inaugural address that southern Maine become its own state. Jim Soule, mayor of South Portland, Maine, ignited debate earlier this month when he proposed in his inaugural address that southern Maine become its own state. (FRED FIELD FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / December 30, 2007

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine - The speech began just as everyone expected: The new mayor thanked his fellow City Council members and the outgoing mayor for their hard work. He welcomed a new council member and promised to work hard himself.

Then, six pages into his inaugural address, the mayor went out on a limb, urging southern Maine to consider seceding and becoming its own state.

"Now, before I'm labeled a wacko or crazed lunatic, I have already been in contact with officials from Freeport, Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth, and Scarborough, and no one has called 911 to have me examined," Mayor James Soule of South Portland told his startled audience.

The proposal, made earlier this month in Soule's first speech as mayor, has renewed statewide debate about the gap between southern and northern Maine, which some say is growing. Elected mayor by his fellow City Council members, Soule says he intended to spur discussion and focus attention on the state's school funding formula, which he called broken. He says his talk about secession was not a joke or a shock tactic, but a way to let state leaders know that the option could be on the table if they fail to change the way school funding is distributed.

"I don't want to waste time throwing out something I don't feel sincerely could happen," Soule said in an interview. "I am stating what's been stated over coffee tables for years and what could be an inevitable conclusion if the Legislature continues to do nothing."

Researchers and residents have long talked about "the two Maines": the region around Portland, with its stable economy, growing population and increasingly urban concerns, and the rural, sparsely populated rest of the state, from the depressed Down East coast to the western mountains and the far northern reaches of Aroostook County. Their differences have bred resentment on both ends and charges of bias in the Legislature from both sides.

The state is not alone in its division - Western and Eastern Massachusetts have also felt disconnected - but tensions in Maine have heightened in the past year, as Mainers have debated a statewide school consolidation plan that many believe could put rural schools at risk. Northerners have also taken umbrage at southern Maine residents who have come out in opposition to a plan to develop rural Moosehead Lake, which many locals see as a key to their economic future.

The underlying problem, said Soule and other officials, is that southern Maine produces vastly more tax revenue for the state than it gets back in local aid.

South Portland, home to The Maine Mall and a massive manufacturing facility for National Semiconductor, generates $45 million in taxes, but receives state aid of just $4 million toward its $40 million school budget, Soule said. As a result, he said, a heavy burden hits homeowners, who pay more property taxes, though their incomes are not much higher than the state median.

The median income in South Portland is $42,770, compared to $37,240 statewide, Soule said.

Some southern Maine officials applauded the new mayor for raising an issue they say is serious. But in South Portland, where businesses cluster in strip malls across the harbor from Portland and blue lights twinkle in the trees around a snowy park, a dozen residents interviewed in laundromats, barber shops, and neighborhood markets said they did not like the secession talk.

"It's ridiculous," said Gilbert Wayne of Portland, waiting for his wife in the food court at The Maine Mall. "So [northern Maine] is like a cancer - you cut them out and let them die off? I don't agree with that. We're all in this together."

At the Neighborhood Laundromat where she works, employee Maureen Wallingford, a South Portland native, stood beneath a huge Maine map that hangs above a row of washing machines. She said she laughed when she heard about the mayor's speech.

"He's not solving anything; he's just making people in Augusta say, 'We've got a fruit loop down there,' " she said.

Soule said southern Maine officials will try to solve the problem before they weigh secession. They plan to meet this winter to draft changes in the school-funding formula, and will ask their legislators to advocate for the changes.

The formula allocating state aid should consider local income levels, as it did until a recent overhaul, Soule said. He has called the current system "educational welfare" that gives rural Maine no incentive to try and attract jobs and industry.

Mayor Ed Suslovic of Portland applauded Soule for his "courage in raising the issues," though he said he does not support secession.

"Although I might not have chosen his exact format, he certainly has raised a legitimate point," Suslovic said. "There's a perception in the rest of Maine that the streets of Portland are paved with gold, and everyone is wealthy. . . . Our incomes are not as high as people think."

Five hours north of Portland, in Caribou, City Manager Steven Buck said northern Maine, too, has some new industry and a stabilizing population, but its needs are different. He said he opposes secession, but welcomes the dialogue started by Soule.

"The gap will continue to widen until people realize we have different problems and we can't do one-size-fits-all legislation," Buck said. "I would encourage [Soule's] endeavor, as long as it's a bit tongue-in-cheek and more about recognizing the differences between regions."

Soule was not the first to propose secession. Two years ago, a legislator from Aroostook County, Henry Joy, filed an unsuccessful bill that would have funded study of a plan to form two states.

In an interview, Joy said he still believes that secession would help the region, by creating a northern state with more uniform interests.

"My only quibble with [Soule] is that they need to take Augusta with them," Joy said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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