Lawmakers push back extreme conservative measures

Maine's innovative economy moves forward

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

August 31st, 2011

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Maine's Capitol in Augusta. photo by Ramona du Houx

In June, Portland hosted the EnergyOcean International Conference with over 400 participants. The city benefited from the international exposure, as well as the income spent at restaurants and other venues. Maine’s Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) brought their tidal-energy machine to the city for the conference, where over 125 visitors took guided tours. The economic ripple effect of Maine’s venture into capturing electrical energy from the ocean is already translating into money for the state’s economy.

It wasn’t long ago that harnessing wind energy from floating wind turbines or from the tides was theoretical, in Maine. Taking a concept and turning it into a reality takes investment. It’s hard in the initial stage; that’s where the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) plays a vital role by granting companies startup funds, as awards or loans. Under Gov. John Baldacci, those awards were increased and became targeted to major “cluster” areas of growth. These MTI grants came from bond funding approved by voters. This major initiative helped UMaine take their floating wind-turbine theories and turn them into actual models for testing. And ORPC, by being awarded funds and a loan, was able to jumpstart their tidal turbine, working with UMaine researchers. Both efforts received substantial additional funding and investment, once the state had given them funds. MTI put their stamp of approval on the projects, which in turn gave investors the needed confidence.

Without those initial MTI investment grant funds, Maine would never have hosted this year’s EnergyOcean Conference, nor the one two years ago. Because of MTI’s initial grants, Maine is now known around the globe as a leader in ocean-energy technology. State government can make a difference, helping to create jobs and industry growth.

But this year, state government decided not to have a bond package. Meanwhile, there are many innovative projects in need of initial investment. Meanwhile, people are still searching for jobs.

This session the Legislature had to deal with many attacks on the ability of the workers of Maine. Under Gov. John Baldacci, 8,206 jobs were created from his Pine Tree Zone initiative. Most of those 310 business owners praised Maine’s workforce and were happy to get a competitive package of ten-year tax breaks. They said a key deciding factor in setting up in the state was Maine’s work ethic. These businesses represent a total investment of $873 million, with an annual payroll of $341 million.

Republican-proposed laws that could take away collective bargaining rights, combined with a budget that cuts into the pension plans of public servants, is a clear statement that this administration does not value Maine’s workforce. So is the administration’s attempt to roll back Medicaid coverage for hardworking people earning $30k to $40k. That was the most frightening element of this session. To see a governor who told the public that he would “put people before politics” and “create jobs” do exactly the opposite, while discrediting Maine’s stellar workforce.

From attacking the principles and history of Maine’s labor movement by taking down the Department of Labor’s mural, to attacking the integrity of Maine’s workers, Gov. LePage has not created jobs. In fact, he has Maine looking like we’ve closed the door to business.

But the spirit of the people of Maine continues to shine. Jobs are being created, despite an unresponsive administration in Augusta. Downtown communities are welcoming visitors, and Brunswick Landing announced the arrival of two new businesses. Belfast, this year, has had 34 new businesses open their doors, due to the shipyard being built, which received Pine Tree Zone status. That ripple effect means positive economic growth.

And the Legislature managed to work together to make the LePage budget workable. Years of bipartisan work helped to govern the results of LD 1 — regulatory reform, without adversely damaging Maine’s quality of life, keeping “Maine, Maine.”

“I believe the best work we do, we do together,” said Rep. Emily Cain, House minority leader.

That experienced bipartisan workmanship guided the Appropriations Committee to craft a budget that continued to protect the most vulnerable, maintaining the values of the common good. The end result did not resemble LePage’s dictated proposal. Tax breaks of $153 million targeted to help the wealthiest did pass, at the expense of state workers. Democrats strongly opposed unnecessary tax cuts.

“These tax cuts are unfunded — benefiting the top ten percent disproportionally. In the next biennium budget, we will have a $400 million hole from these tax cuts, that we will have to fill,” said Senator Justin Alfond. “Essential programs that create the infrastructure and confidence for businesses to invest in Maine will have to be trimmed for tax cuts that mean no more than a $100 for the middle class.”

Tax cuts sound great for political campaigns, but for state government they could take away from the future revenues that support core programs that keep citizens healthy, communities safe, and offer educational opportunities. Right now the federal government is dealing with a real debt-deficit problem that has happened, in large part, because of Bush tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans.

Without any bonds to fund research and development projects, transportation projects, educational needs this time around, state government’s hands have been tied. While Democrats would have embraced the opportunity to create jobs with a comprehensive jobs bond, they were denied the opportunity.

“Not having a bond package of 2011 means we are leaving hundreds of jobs on the table. No bonding is like moving backwards by standing still,” said Cain.

During Gov. Baldacci’s last legislative session, over 2,000 transportation jobs were created, some of the roadwork you see out there now is still a part of that bond package. Funds for a new branch of Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) were approved and classes this fall at SMCC’s new Brunswick Landing location are filled. The great expansion of the Community College System all took place during the Baldacci administration, and plans on how to continue to move forward were in place. But while the federal government is moving forward to expand the scope of community colleges to train the workforce for jobs that have vacancies now, Maine has been forced to put the breaks on.

LePage promised to create job opportunities and training to fill those jobs. Another promise unfulfilled.

The people of Maine are resilient, creative, innovative entrepreneurs who care deeply for their communities. The Legislature reflects the people who elected them to office. Democrats and Republicans joined together to preserve Maine’s environment.

If LePage had managed to ramrod his original budget proposal through the Legislature, we would be loosing jobs; local communities would be forced to raise taxes to serve people thrown off welfare, and our environment would be open to any developer to destroy. That prospect was grim. The ability of Maine’s lawmakers to work together to make the best of a bad budget proposal deserves praise; it’s the Maine way.

It’s also the Maine way to bounce back with vigor and determination — that indeed is what Democratic lawmakers have done in the uncomfortable position of being in the minority. Democrats fought hard for all the people of Maine in one of the most challenging legislative sessions in recent memory.