Editorial by Ramona du Houx

January 5, 2014

Research and Development (R&D) funds from state and the federal government have fueled innovation and inventions for decades, making America’s economy grow. R&D has kept us on the cutting edge of industry changes and medical breakthroughs. If it weren’t for federal grants the Internet would still be a concept. From new medicines to computer technologies “we the people” have had a hand, through our taxes, in helping businesses that use these innovations across the country get off the ground. Some of these businesses now make billions. So, why not ask these businesses to help invest into new innovations that have been waiting for grants. Seems it would only be fair if they gave more in taxes to help fuel our economy in this way.

There’s no doubt about it America’s economy is improving; it has been since President Barack Obama’s stimulus package took hold. That Recovery Act fueled needed areas in our economy by keeping first responders, and teachers employed while investing in R&D to grow innovative jobs.

Here in Maine broadband IT technology is beginning to transform rural parts of Maine that are far from metropolitan hubs. What started on a small scale, with Governor John E. Baldacci’s ConnectME initiative, Maine now hosts some of the best broadband connections in the country, yet more needs to be done. And projects funded by innovation grants at the University of Maine show the promises of industries that will employ thousands of workers in the years to come.

While there is definitely a deficit of trained workers for job openings in IT and other innovation jobs, that problem is starting to be addressed by lawmakers in Augusta, who in a bipartisan effort formed a committee that has visited all areas of the state to listen to the community. They passed some laws based on their findings and are working on others.

There is a lack of movement when it comes to establishing an R&D stream of funding to help Maine companies develop their technologies at the University of Maine and other institutes of higher learning. Governor Paul LePage has refused to consider these kinds of bonds, yet the people of Maine overwhelmingly always vote in favor of them.

The floating offshore wind platform project, patented and designed at UMaine, was jump-started with bond funding from the state. Then the UMaine design, The VolturnUS, won federal grants to continue the effort. A new poll shows over 74 percent of Mainers favor wind power. It’s frustrating for some lawmakers not to see new R&D bond investments. Some remember working in Augusta when the Maine Technology Asset Fund bond programs and the downtown revitalization bonds were kick-started with the Baldacci administration. The administration, with Karen Mills spearheading the effort, was armed with the results form a Brookings Institute report, so Republicans and Democrats were able to understand how innovation bonds and community revitalization bonds would help the economy. Both areas enabled Maine’s creative economy to take root. Both areas are now seeing tangible results, but so much more needs to be done.

A large portion of our future economic growth lies in the creative, innovative economy. With more stores taking risks and opening their doors in our downtowns, as they display unique quality Maine products, the public is and has been responding. Maine artisans crafting pottery and woodwork from the state’s natural resources are growing in numbers. People from across Maine, New England, the US, and the world are now regularly planning vacations in the state to experience our downtowns, while having the accessibility to enjoy nature in all her splendor. The combination turns dynamic with great new restaurants, cafés, and cultural happenings. Maine’s quality of life can be outstanding.

In October, Portland hosts an international cooking event at the Ocean Gateway Terminal, which was built with state and federal bond funds and private partnerships. Bangor’s Folk Festival is a prime example of how creative endeavors working with the community are helping economic growth. The Brunswick International Music Festival is bigger and more encompassing that ever, bringing musicians to Maine from around the globe. When music comes to town, people visit and see firsthand how Maine has been transformed with the help of bonds, community organizations, passion, and the good nature of the people of Maine.

Bonds by no means are the panacea. As more people flock downtown there are too many Maine workers who are constrained by low wages. They can’t afford the new sensations communities offer, but these are hardworking people who should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. America’s minimum wage by no means can support individuals, let alone families. With couples having to work two jobs, they barely have time for family life, let alone enjoying downtown life. In Maine there was a measure to increase the minimum wage. That effort needs more support, as does the national proposal by President Obama. Having the conversation is the first start; for too long WalMart wages have gone unchallenged, and too many of these workers’ incomes had to be supplemented by the federal government. A livable wage in this country is long overdue. European nations who enjoy livable wages also have productivity and growth, like Germany.

With the ice storm of 2013 behind us, crews that hailed from up and down the east coast have returned home, and the majority who received the gratitude of the people of Maine are happy they were able to help. The Senator Inn in Augusta fed the crews on Christmas, and other restaurants stepped forward. Thousands of citizens gave thanks with coffee, cookies and good cheer, even though they had been without electricity for days. This community spirit of Maine is our brand, and that too is why the creative economy continues to defy critics, as it expands here.

But endeavors need helping hands. The state needed help from others to get the power back on. We need bond funding to fuel the economy at home and across the country. We need to lift workers up by giving them a livable wage. It’s America’s promise, to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that needs to be fulfilled. We need a fair tax system and fair wages. It can start in Maine.