Gov. LePage's policies led to negative growth, but there is hope with new laws, R&D, and FocusMaine

Editorial by Ramona du Houx

While every Northeastern state has added jobs and businesses, climbing steadily out of the Great Recession, Maine has begun to suffer from negative growth because of Governor Paul LePage’s policies.

The southern areas of Maine have begun to bounce back, but northern Maine’s economy continues to take hits with mill closures, lack of construction jobs, lack of real estate sales, loss of non-durable goods manufacturing, and budget cutbacks. A Maine Economic Center for Policy report analyzed poverty rates and concluded that poverty rates in northern Maine under LePage’s watch have dramatically increased, more so than in southern regions.

LePage held back initiatives in offshore wind by pulling a deal out from under a Norwegian offshore wind company, after they had made agreements. His singleminded focus on overhauling welfare programs has hurt more Mainers than it has helped.

But there are ways to fight back, and Senator Justin Alfond was able to pass a measure that would allow the state to seek federal funding to help stop hunger in Maine.

The overall economic facts still sting.

Between 2009 and 2014, the Measures of Growth report says that Maine’s economy shrank by 1.2 percent. During the same period, the nation’s economy grew by 9.4 percent, and New England’s economy grew by 5.4 percent. Maine’s economy had negative growth, while neighboring states have been moving steadily forward.

Starting in ’09, the American Recovery Act (ARA) infused the state with needed funds for projects earmarked by the Baldacci administration, saving Maine from a all-out depression. The ARA was a launching pad for states to get their economies rolling, but in Maine LePage stalled the progress when he refused to follow a bipartisan path to steadily grow the state’s economy. His dogged refusal to accept federal health-care funds from the Affordable Care Act has drastically damaged the economy, the health of thousands of Mainers, and hospitals are paying for his mistake.

Last year, the national economy grew at a 2.2 percent rate, and New England’s rate was 1.6 percent, but the negligible growth in 2014 put Maine’s economic growth 47th in the country and last in New England, according to figures in the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

During LePage’s first four years, people from a broad spectrum of business and nonprofits met with his administration in the hopes of working to grow the economy. But economic stagnation followed.

There is hope—

More than 50 leading figures in Maine’s business, academic and political circles have become committed to ending the state’s economic stagnation. Their group, FocusMaine, aims to work with three promising industries in a concerted effort to grow 20,000 to 30,000 jobs over the next ten years across the state. 

Karen Mills, former Small Business administrator for the Obama administration and former advisor to Governor John Baldacci, is one of the key people working with FocusMaine.

“Agriculture, aquaculture and biopharmaceuticals were chosen because Maine's inherent strengths in these sectors allow to us to compete nationally and even internationally in those growing markets,” wrote Mills.

In agriculture, the federal government has been helping rural areas across the US with millions in USDA grants, and many Maine small operations have been recipients. The number of Maine farmers age 34 and younger grew by nearly 40 percent from 2007 to 2012; during the same time there was an increase of 1,326 agricultural jobs — during the recession, while other jobs declined.

Some of those USDA grants have gone to biomass facilities, and the 127th Legislature enacted a law to help those opperations stay afloat.

Maine has many research facilities that have benefited from Maine Technology Institute grants, as well as federal funds. The Jackson Laboratory is one, and they recently announced they will build a new facility in Ellsworth, adding more than 200 jobs.

According to a University of Southern Maine report, in 2007-08 $7.1 million in MTI grants leveraged over $117 million in other public and private funds for research and product development, or $14.27 for every dollar of MTI funding.

The Legislature has put forward a $50 million bond for R&D to be approved in 2017. And a new law was established to create the Invest in Maine Capital Fund. 

“This bipartisan bond is a remarkable achievement by the 127th Legislature … They award funds based on the best proposals and business plans, not who has the best lobbyists to earmark funds for a specific institution," said Former State House Majority Leader Rep. Seth Berry. "All of Maine should celebrate today and thank our elected leaders for this strong signal that Maine is moving forward."

Another sector that has steadily added jobs is alternative energy, but the LePage administration has been reluctant to back an undeniable area of growth, which was aided by the Baldacci administration.

Along with producing alternative energy comes cutting down emissions from polluters and weatherizing Maine’s housing stock. That’s why the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is so important. It’s the nation’s first market-based regulatory program to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. The program, initiated in Maine by Gov. John Baldacci, has brought in $77,301,179.35 to the state for weatherization and alternative energy projects, for businesses and homes.

The 127th Legislature also crafted a solar energy bill with stakeholders, which would  add new jobs, and $500 million in investment to Maine’s economy over the next several years. However, LePage vetoed the measure. That hasn't stopped other solar projects moving forward as Sanford and Colby College are following Bowdoin College's lead and errecting large solar instalations.

 Meanwhile, FocusMaine and other groups across the state will be working to progress Maine economically, as Maine's creativity flourishes.

Under Gov. LePage:

  • More children are living in poverty.
  • Maine trails the country in income growth.
  • Research and Development bonds are practically nonexistent. Bonds are a tool the previous administration used to grow good jobs.
  • Voter-approved bonds that could have spurred economic growth have been held hostage.
  • Senior housing bonds that would add construction jobs immediately won’t be released.
  • Immigrants have been victimized by this governor's policies.
  • Maine has lost 15,400 workers who have left the state since 2010.
  • Mainers spend more than ever  18 percent of total personal expenditure  on health care.
  • 70,000 Mainers still have no health-care coverage available under the ACA in other states.
  • Maine scores -0.54, according to the Measures of Growth report.