Gov. Angus King talks about technology and the role of the state in the New Economy.

by / January 15, 2001

Gov. Angus King talks about technology and the role of the state in the New Economy.

By Shane Peterson, News Editor

Gov. Angus King Jr. is serving his second four-year term as Maines 71st governor. He was re-elected in 1998 by one of the largest margins of victory in Maines history and is one of only two independent governors in the country. In 1972, he became chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics. Three years later, he returned to Maine to practice law and began his almost 20-year stint as host of the television show "Maine Watch" on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

Q: What is the most important IT project Maine is currently working on?

A: The initiative that were working on to provide some kind of computing power to every seventh grader in the state. If we can pull that off, I believe it will be the most significant project in the history of the state. But its still in doubt. The situation is that the Legislature set aside the money that I requested -- $50 million -- into a technology endowment for K-12 education, but left open the question of how that money should be spent.

We now have a task force (the Learning Technology Task Force) made up of citizens, legislators and educators thats working on a plan. Theyll report back to the Legislature and the Legislature will make the final call as to how to make this happen. Thus far, the task force has been defining its mission; what the goals are in terms of access and equity. Theyre trying to hone in on how to recommend the utilization of these funds.

Q: Youve been quoted as stating that the economic success of states now depends on the Internet and the people behind the Internet. Are you looking to develop the people behind the Internet with this initiative?

A: My concept in terms of what this would do for Maine is pretty straightforward. If we can develop the most digitally literate society on earth, the jobs and the prosperity and the opportunities and the options will follow. I have no doubt of that. The whole concept is that we have a generation of people, that when they graduate from high school theyve been using computers so ubiquitously that its part of their consciousness, and theres no telling where that will lead. Certainly, one place that it will lead is that it will raise our value in the New Economy.

Theres going to be a growth of people, everywhere from tech support to back-office business operations to software development to Web site design. The reason this is so important to Maine is that, historically, weve been geographically disadvantaged in the sense of being far from the markets and those types of things. In this economy, geography is no longer as important as it has been and I want to be in a position to take advantage of that shift. But, to do that, youve got to have the people with the skills and the competence to make it happen.

Q: With the sudden backlash in California cities against dot-coms gobbling downtown real estate, driving up rents and forcing out old-world businesses, how do you balance luring New Economy businesses to Maine against keeping your states identity?

A: Were trying very hard to balance the economic growth, the greater prosperity that everybody wants, with maintaining the character of Maine, which is a state of smaller towns, open space and limited sprawl. The problem is that with prosperity comes strip malls. It takes a lot of effort and deliberate thinking to prevent that from happening, and youre never going to prevent it altogether.

Weve passed laws about access to highways and how many curb cuts there can be. Weve just passed a major bond issue for the acquisition of open space. We have special tax provisions for farms and open space: They get a lower property-tax rate if they commit to keeping their farms in operation.

I dont think we can ever completely avoid it, but we dont want to trade what is special about Maine in terms of our quality of life for an extra couple of percentage points of personal-income growth. I believe very deeply that we can do both.

Q: Several states have created new positions to stimulate economic development. How do you see yourself working in that role?

A: It involves everything from making sure that our regulatory and legal framework is right -- digital-signature laws, taxation as it relates to the Internet and supportive regulatory polices for telecommunications infrastructure. Thats one aspect of that role. Tax policy is another aspect of that role. Promotion is another aspect of that role.

I was in Silicon Valley in June talking to people about Maine and what opportunities we can offer to companies out there that are paying $80 per square foot for rent when the highest rent in downtown Portland is $15. I can even give them places in pretty nice towns where the rent is $5. Its a whole range of initiatives, from legal and regulatory to tax and informational.

One of Maines real problems is that we have a good image with the rest of the country, but that image only involves lobsters and vacations. People dont think of us as a place to do business, let alone a place to do high-tech business. In reality, we have two semiconductor-manufacturing facilities; an awful lot of growth in software, biotech and a tremendous amount of growth in back-office, telecommunications-based support businesses.

Q: Why did you decide not to delegate that role?

A: Well, we may. We have an office of economic and community development, and the guy who runs it is very sharp, very keyed into this area, and I dont think we need to add another special position. Economic development is a complex topic; theres no single answer.

A lot of states put emphasis on recruiting out-of-state businesses, but the truth is that 80 percent of anybodys economic growth comes from within -- maybe even higher than that -- and most of that growth is in small businesses, somebody going from 20 employees to 25 employees. Were trying to find the right balance between supporting and promoting local businesses, recruiting businesses from the outside, getting our share of business expansion and doing all the other kinds of things.

Youve got to push on all the levers at once. I was at a software company, called ATX software, thats located in Caribou, Maine, right on the Canadian border. Its a very small town with a population of 5,000 or 6,000 people. ATX is homegrown and its serving a national clientele in tax preparation.

The company is on the Inc. 500 list this year. Its one of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the country. This is a perfect example of the New Economy. Theyre just flying and theyre finding the talent they need in this very small town, very far from the urban centers of Maine, and yet, its happening.

Theres another company, based in Boston, thats having trouble finding people in large groups. What the company has realized is that there are a lot of good people in rural areas, but theyre too spread out to justify a big facility. The company is training people and giving everybody a computer and DSL. Weve got people working in these tiny towns, and the salaries range from $20,000 to $70,000 per year -- and its not just call center stuff.

Q: How are you getting telecommunications providers to roll out DSL to those typically unprofitable areas?

A: Verizon has a great local presence in the state. Weve had good relationships with the leadership; theyve advocated for the state within the corporate offices. Weve done amazingly well; weve got more than 100,000 miles of fiber-optic cable laid in the state; we were the first state in the country to have a fully digitally switched network; and weve got SONET rings north and south in the state.

The company has been great to work with, and its partially because its a forward-looking company and partially because I bug them a lot. Theyre willing to work with us. Weve got a similar relationship with Time Warners RoadRunner service. The same day I visited the software company up north, we did the kick off of RoadRunner service in this very rural area in the state. Its the most rural deployment of RoadRunner in the country, from what I understand. Now, we can claim that Sweden, Maine, has better Internet service than some parts of San Francisco or New York or Boston. One of the reasons that the Time Warner people are doing this in Maine is that theyve found that Maine residents are very receptive to this service. RoadRunner first was deployed in Portland, and, from the very beginning up to today, Portland has the highest penetration of RoadRunner customers of any city in the country that has the service.

The company thinks there is a market, and theyre willing to invest to take advantage of that market. Its been a combination of forward-thinking businesses, the Legislature passing the right kind of tax laws and a governor who keeps bugging the companies. Its all come together, and we now have a fabulous telecommunications system -- one of the best in the country.

Q: You issued a directive last year that stipulates your desire for Maines residents to be able to handle their interactions with state government online by July 2001. How close are you to fulfilling that directive?

A: Weve got hunting and fishing licenses, and were doing a lot of other licensing functions. The one area thats tough is car registration, but were working hard on that area. One of the reasons its difficult is that it involves the towns because, under the way our vehicle registration system works, youve got to pay your local excise tax to the town. So when you register your vehicle, you have to involve both the town and the state.

Q: We hear a lot of talk about seamless government -- that people can go to a single Web site and handle transactions at the local, state and federal levels. How close do you think that is to being a reality?

A: I believe were five years away, probably across the country, from being able to work out a lot of the difficulties inherent to that level of seamless government. Were not five years away from integration of services. But were five years away from integration of delivery in which somebody getting a license is going to press a button and give their credit card number and the money is going to flow to the right places, but youll still have separate entities. I dont believe were going to see a change on that front.

The public will just demand these services. You go into a DMV office and you have to wait an hour or so to get your license renewal. No business would tolerate that; theres not a business in America where you have to sit and wait that long for services, except maybe health care, and thats another topic.

Our people are working hard on it, and I believe were making some real progress. Im hoping that within a year, well be much further along in terms of the motor-vehicle renewals.

Q: Weve seen several states having difficulties in funding their e-gov initiatives, and Ive spoken with CIOs who say, "Well, were told to roll out these services, but we dont have any funds to do it." How is Maine approaching that problem?

A: There hasnt been a special line item in our budget that says e-government, $8 million, or whatever. Weve funded these services through the budgets of our departments. What Ive said is, "This is the way were doing business these days, and its part of your fundamental responsibility as a way to deliver services. So dont tell me its got to cost extra." Thats like somebody selling me a car and telling me Ive got to pay extra for the steering wheel. This is a fundamental responsibility of state agencies. That doesnt mean we havent put a lot of money into e-government; we have. Theres been a tremendous amount of investment in the whole range of technology, from desktop PCs to servers to networks and all that.

When I came into office in 1995, there was zero e-mail in state government. Now, virtually everybody is connected, and we have a very good system. But it took investment and time to make that happen, but basically, its been part of our ongoing IT budget.

Q: Are you guiding the agencies as to how youd like them to spend? Do you want them to approach creating systems from an enterprise point of view?

A: Thats the constant dilemma. The challenge is between enterprise-wide
policies and local initiatives. In a sense, state government is like a conglomerate corporation that has eight, 10 or 12 separate divisions, each of which has a different product, a different set of challenges, a different staff and, largely, a different IT solution.

When I came into office, there were something like 24 different word-processing programs in use throughout state government. Weve now got that down to two. What were trying to do is find the right balance between a centralized, sort of rational, system that is fully interconnected and interoperable.

But, at the same time, youve got to allow agencies to design solutions that fit their particular problems and not try to impose something on them that doesnt make sense in connection with what theyre doing.

We have an entity called the ISPB, the Information Services Policy Board, which
is made up of representatives of various departments plus our central office. They are constantly dealing with this issue of centralization versus local initiative. You can make a strong argument that we ought to do it all centrally, but then you lose a lot of creativity out in the agencies. Its just a question of finding the right balance.

Q: How do you rate Maine in facing the digital divide?

A: I dont know how wed rate, but weve certainly got it. I just saw a poll that estimated that 47 percent of the people in Maine are on the Internet, but its uneven. In some areas, its 80 percent and in others, its probably only 30 percent.

Thats the second major reason Im pushing this school initiative so hard. The initiative would get a computer into the hands of all our students -- and by extension, their homes, if the PCs are portable, and thats one of the reasons to make them portable.

It would be every student at every school; rich or poor, urban or rural, north or south, east or west. Thats one of the more important reasons that Im pushing this initiative so hard. Some of the rural legislators were the first ones to jump on the idea and say, "Yes, this is something we really ought to be doing."

It is an issue, and I want to see it erased. Historically, theres been a pretty serious difference in economic growth and economic opportunity between the urban areas and the rural areas. One way to deal with that is to increase the technological capacity of the rural areas, which gets back to ATX software in Caribou. That company couldnt exist without good connection and good access. I agree with Bill Clinton; I think the Internet is the greatest tool ever invented for lifting people out of poverty. Its one of the great equity inventions of all time, and I want to be sure that Maine residents throughout the state have a chance to take advantage of it.

Q: Do you think the digital divide boils down to something as simple as income or is it larger than that?

A: Money is certainly part of it, but I believe other parts of the digital divide are cultural factors and expectations. If youve got a household in which one or both of the parents dont read or write very well, its going to be hard for them to see the value of having this machine in their home thats based on technological literacy.

In Georgia, portable computers were given to students in a very poor school district and a year or two later, the rate of GED participation in that county went up 70 percent. The kids brought the machines home and the parents wanted to figure out how to work them and they built up their technology literacy skills from there.

Its a complicated issue. I attended a big technology conference in Camden recently and John Scully, the former president of Apple, spoke. He said the Internet, like other technological innovations, has three stages: curiosity, usefulness and indispensability. He thinks the Internet is still between useful and indispensable.

The Internet is also the fastest-penetrating technology in the history of America in terms of how many people had it how fast -- faster than radio, faster than TV and faster than color TV. Its growth has just been incredible.

The Internet is going to be indispensable within five years.