Congressman Mike Michaud in Portland, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

August/September 2006

By Ramona du Houx

Maine’s Congressman Mike Michaud’s leadership in Congress on trade issues has been significant in changing votes, so that human rights and environmental protections would be taken into account. He was asked to take over the fight in the House on CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. With his leadership the vote count was dramatically different from the NAFTA vote.

Tell me about CAFTA.

“If we had one other member of Congress who had voted against CAFTA, the trade agreement would have failed. That’s how close it was. It would have ended up in a tie. We were able to reach across the aisle with our Republican colleagues. We were able to bring together a coalition that made it extremely difficult for the administration to get the votes that they needed. The president and the vice-president had to take a trip over to the Capitol to try to convince members of the Republican Party that this was extremely important to them. And even with that, the vote was held for over an hour — which broke the rules of votes being fifteen minutes.

“When the president authorized Republican leadership to use whatever means they had at their disposal to get the bill passed, I knew it would be a real uphill battle. Even though we lost that, we were able to raise the issue about trade. Fundamental issues of labor and environment have been met on these trade agreements. There are 40 million people in the CAFTA nations. Their total purchasing power is the same size as Maine and Connecticut. A little over forty percent of the citizens that work in CAFTA nations make less than two dollars a day.

“That’s not going to help the economy here in United States. We will see large corporations move down to the CAFTA nations to exploit the workers. Backers of CAFTA said that the agreement would raise the standard of living for CAFTA nations. They said that for NAFTA too, and that we won’t have to worry about Mexicans trying to cross the border illegally. Well that hasn’t exactly been the case.

“You have to have fair labor standards as well as environmental standards. Companies here in the United States have to comply with environmental standards because of health reasons. Other countries can just pollute the air — that’s not putting the businesses here in the U.S. on a level playing field.

“The alarming thing is that a lot people think this issue is labor against business, and that is not the case. The United States Business and Industry Council understand that CAFTA gives other countries the upper hand simply because of the labor and environmental standards.”

Tell me about the Transportation Committee.

“From the previous year to the next Maine received a 30 percent increase in federal transportation funding. By comparison other New England states, with the exception of Vermont, only received a 19 percent increase.

“When you look at the cost of moving products in and out of the state, transportation costs are extremely high. We’ve got to make sure that transportation costs are affordable and that we have access to other markets.

“There’s always been some disagreement with the members of the Appropriation Committee and members of the Transportation Committee — members of the Appropriations Committee have always taken the stance that if you have your own highway fund then you don’t need appropriation general funds. I looked at it a little differently. When you look at economic development, we are one state of Maine. Transportation is number one. It’s major for economic growth, and funds have to be made available.”

And the East-West Highway?

“One of the things that I was amazed at when I got on the Transportation Committee was Maine was not even on the transportation map of America.

“Talking to other members of Congress we raised awareness that there wasn’t an east-west corridor. In a bipartisan, multi-state effort I worked with my colleagues from New York to Maine. We sent a letter to the chair and ranking members talking about the importance of an east-west corridor. I also sent a copy of the letter to our two senators, in case they might want to do the same in the Senate. In the end we were able to get a high-priority designation for an east-west highway. That will bring additional funding into the state. It will literally put Maine on the map.”


Congressman Mike Michaud in his Waterville, Maine office. Photo by Ramona du Houx

What’s your legislation for a Northeast Regional Economic Development Commission about?

“In 1965 a Regional Economic Commission Bill was established, which funnels $40 million on an ongoing basis for economic development purposes. Since its inception there have been several regional commissions established, except for the Northeast. We didn’t have one. So I worked with the governor, various economic development groups, Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, and district interest groups, to craft legislation that would support an economic development commission which covers Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Upstate New York.

“The commission would be charged with investing $40 million per year in federal resources for economic development and job creation in the most distressed areas of these New England states.

“The commission is made up of the four governors and representatives from the four states. A lot of local economic developers and businesses and interest groups have worked on it, so it has been built from the bottom up. That was our intention. People don’t like Augusta or Washington, DC telling them, ‘this is what is best for you.’ So we went to people at the grass roots first to work with the people from the bottom up. They have to deliver the programs. What they see, their insights are very important. If we have to change anything around, they’re the people to ask.

“The good news is that Maine will, dollar for dollar, get about 45 percent of the overall funding. The funding will focus on areas that need the help the most — all of Washington, Aroostook, Piscataquis, and Somerset counties qualified.

“If you look at what Maine is all about; our manufacturing base, our forestry, our natural resource base, agriculture, fishing — this legislation highlights those particular areas. And it talks about the creative economy.

“Education is really important — whether or not you’re going to have a job, continue with the job that you’re in and improve your skills in technology, or go to another job — education is very important. The legislation also covers education and training to make sure that the resources are there so someone can further their skills. As well as helping rural areas get in more doctors and nurses, this bill can actually help reimburse students for student loans in those particular areas.”

How would it specifically help to reimburse student loans?

“If you’re going away to college to become a doctor or a dentist and you want to return to Maine and set up shop in a rural community, you would be reimbursed for your student loans. That could free up your finances so you could start a business. Basically, it’s an incentive for young people to move into rural areas.

“In addition, health-care facilities could use some of these funds to get in needed equipment. It’s a way to get people the tools they need to succeed.

“The legislation could also be used for marketing Maine, helping seniors and veterans. Sixteen percent of our population are veterans.”

Why is the legislation so broad?

“Because it takes into account a lot of the problems that I’ve seen while I was in the state Legislature, working in the mill, and witnessing what’s happening in northern Maine. The legislation talks about the creative economy, natural resource industries, health-care facilities, students, and even snowmobiling. It looks at all the issues and how we can enhance and compliment what the state and local regional groups are doing.”

You were instrumental, working with the governor, in obtaining the $15 million WIRED federal grant that will help the boatbuilding industry with composite technology. What else is happening with R&D?

“When I was in the Maine State Legislature, I was a strong supporter of research and development, and we are beginning to see the results of that R&D funding. I feel that it’s a changing economy around the world; if we do not keep up with the pace then we will be left behind — that’s why R&D is so important.

“One of the new technologies that they’re working on at the AWEC center, at the University of Maine in Orono, are composites for buildings to make them stronger. With this composite technology, buildings can withstand a mortar attack. I’m really excited about this, because it will help our military, and it’s a great opportunity to expand what’s happening in the state of Maine. Recently, we actually got $12 million dollars for the Army Center of Excellence at Orono.

“This new technology is not only exciting for our Department of Defense, but when you look at what it can withstand in the weather, it’s amazing. It can withstand hurricane force winds. This could change how houses are built. It’s new technology enhanced here in the state of Maine.”