Editorial by Ramona du Houx

May 5, 2011

Some of us may not like it but the reality is government can help grow the economy. Some say we don’t want government involved in our daily lives. But they don’t take the time to realize how much we depend on government’s services.

To get to work we depend on our transportation infrastructure. What private company is going to pay for our highways? President Eisenhower understood the necessity for commerce to get the goods to market on time in order to compete, so he started America’s Interstate Highway System. He put thousands to work for years, which gave industries the confidence to invest in innovative ideas. He also gave us the G.I. Bill — which gave a generation a new chance at life with a college education.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) put people back to work all over the country. It was the second largest transportation infrastructure investment in America, right behind the Interstate Highway System. Grants for alternative energy development and weatherization infused Maine’s green energy economy with needed investments, giving investors confidence to move forward as we climbed out of the recession. Investments in innovation are major job creators. A third of the ARRA funds went to create and or retain jobs.

In Maine, under the Baldacci administration we increased investment in education and research and development — which has grown cutting-edge businesses, like Harbor Technologies. Other research has become the basis for offshore development technologies developed in Maine, which are projected to create 15,000 jobs while putting Maine firmly on the path of energy independence from oil.

President F. D. Roosevelt gave America a New Deal. Amongst numerous programs to stimulate the economy, he gave workers rights they lacked. His labor commissioner Francis Perkins was responsible for the architecture of the labor polices. Perkins had strong ties to Maine, spending her summers here.

Roosevelt also issued grants to artists to document the Depression, so future generations would know what went before. One federal art project 162 trained women to paint murals or create statues for newly built post offices and courthouses. Many of these works of art can still be seen in public buildings around the country. Stirring images caught by photographers like Dorothea Lange and cultural depictions of life by Normal Rockwell remind us of our heritage and the spirit of the America people. This wealth in art, from film to writing, helped to define a time. A time we should never forget, or regret— for social security, workers’ protections and a minimum wage became established. These cherished programs defined America as a society that cared about its people. Art is important.

When Gov. LePage took down Maine’s labor history mural — in secrecy — he crossed the line of an elected official by depriving Maine’s citizens of the opportunity to view their history though art. Perkins is proudly depicted in the artwork, as well as “Rosie the Riveter” who actually worked at Bath Iron Works. The mural is a celebration of Maine’s labor history. It gives thanks for those who went before us, fighting for labor rights we all-too-often take for granted.

LePage’s actions were shortsighted and reflect his view of workers. Strong words? Not really, when you look at the bills that his administration backs, as he continues to promote a national Tea Party agenda in Maine.

Some labor bills proposed by Republicans this session include:

• A repeal of laws passed in 1975 and 1997 that provide protection for workers in the notorious egg-processing facilities associated with Jack DeCoster. This repeal would exempt those workers from qualifying for the Maine minimum wage and overtime protections and would rescind their right to form a union.

• The so-called Right to Work legislation that would open the floodgates to measures that would be the end of unions and collective bargaining.

• Then there are the proposed bills that would roll back child-labor laws by repealing the minimum-wage protections for high school students — limiting their income to just $5.25 an hour for six months and increasing hours for students to work.

• There is even a bill that would stop first responders from getting medical care pay if they suffer from post traumatic stress.

These bills attack workers’ rights when we should be looking for ways to invigorate the economy with new jobs. What businesses have said they need are more skilled workers. Over the last eight years, businesses worked with the State to help train workers. But the contingency fund set up by Baldacci for job training — which provided funds to help companies train new workers — was recently axed by LePage.

Government can help create jobs. It doesn’t help to tell workers we don’t believe in you.

Sen. Justin Alfond, referring to LePage’s so-called jobs stance, said, “The simple fact is: You can’t be pro-jobs and anti-worker. We must invest in Maine’s most valuable resource — our workforce.”

While the legislative session is half over, regulatory reform, restructuring welfare, a $6.1 billion state budget, and proposals that are loaded with explosive Tea Party policy issues are still on the table. A host of environmental protections are being debated.

Lawmakers must decide whether or not to: allow out-of-state health insurers sell in Maine, kill Maine RX (prescription drug program), raid the Healthy Maine Fund, phase out Dirigo Health, and continue to transition the state’s health policy to the federal health-care act.

LePage wants to reduce taxes by $203 million, but his plan would only shift the burden onto the middle class. Other Republicans have their own tax plan, but neglects paying for the cuts, it only shifts them down the road two years. In the end taxpayers will see the bill. Meanwhile Democrats on the Tax Committee offered an alternative proposal for tax relief that helps working Maine people and Maine small businesses. And Democrats on the Health and Human Services Committee outlined a framework for finding real savings at the Department of Health and Human Services, while protecting crucial aspects of the safety net.

Aside from all the budget matters, other important bills await final disposition. Like a bill that would make doctors educate women on the risks and alternatives to abortion and require a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can have an abortion.

It’s a conservative shopping list. On the other side of the coin, progressives have submitted bills that would help grow the economy and jobs, protect health-care benefits, increase property tax relief, and invest in education. And they have had success bringing everyone to the table on certain issues:

• A bill that would have repealed the entire Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code was defeated in a 12–1 vote.

• Up until a few weeks ago, Gov. LePage threatened to veto the rules banning certain uses of the toxic chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) — but that was before the House voted 145-3 and the Senate voted 35-0 to support the rules. It’s now law.

• LD 1 the major regulatory reform bill, as it stands right now, does not include any major environmental rollbacks, and it focuses mostly on process improvements, which do not weaken Maine’s environmental laws.

“Since the start of the legislative session, Democrats on every policy committee have provided strong proposals to counter the extreme agenda of the governor and Republicans in the Legislature. Time and again our common-sense ideas on regulatory reform, the budget, toxic chemicals, and public safety have won out over radical proposals,” said Rep. Emily Cain.

Helping those in need when they need it has become an important role of government, a clear role F.D.R defined. President Obama has redefined that role in our time, as the role to return to a social compact.

What good will it be to transform Maine into a climate that is friendly to corporations that pollute? Tourism is our biggest industry, supporting hundreds of small businesses. Our environment is a big part of our quality of life — which attracts businesses to Maine.

What good will come from weakening workers’ rights? Economists agree that lowering our standards to compete in the global economy won’t work. It’s bad economics. We can’t compete with slave labor and poor working conditions to produce substandard products. Nor should we want to.

• We can compete by encouraging entrepreneurs to innovate, by investing in research-and-development bonds that help our scientists discover new products that can be developed in Maine and sold globally. Last year exports were up by 41 percent.

• We can compete by trusting Maine’s workforce and Maine’s businesses by upholding their rights. Collective bargaining works for all parties involved by creating a working atmosphere that stimulates growth and production.

• We can compete by taking care of all our citizens by serving their needs. We are only as strong as our weakest link. Kick someone off welfare and they will be forced to find support in local communities, putting a strain on county budgets. Creating and supporting job-training programs is a job state government can and should be involved in.

• We can compete by building a world-class transportation infrastructure and broadband infrastructure that will be a real sign that says MAINE IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS, while stimulating the economy by creating jobs.

• We can compete by letting America and the world know Maine is a welcoming, industrious, innovative state with workers who are outstanding. Instead of sending a message that the state is run by intimidation and fear mongering.

• We can compete by continuing to support policies that will stimulate Maine’s alternative energy sector by increasing weatherization programs, biofuel production, and research-and-development funds. Maine has to become less dependent on foreign oil as an energy source. The state has a huge opportunity to grow the economy by continuing to promote wind development.

• We can compete by promoting quality goods produced in Maine. The state’s creative economy is revitalizing downtown communities and attracting visitors from around the world. We are now an established cruse ship destination and winter sports destination, which sees thousands of people enjoying downtown community life.

• We can compete by investing in higher education and improving access to our community colleges.

• We can compete by promoting our Pine Tree Zones, which give companies tax incentives, and since 2003 have added more than 8,000 jobs.

All of these ways that help Maine compete in the global economy happened with the Baldacci administration and the legislature that served during his time in office. Maine faired far better than other states coming out of the recession because of these policies. Our unemployment rate remains the lowest in the nation. Under LePage it has edged up slightly from it’s lowest under Baldacci of 7.3 percent to where it is now at 7.6 percent.

We need to be fiscally responsible while investing in the people of Maine. This economic prescription worked for F.D.R., President Clinton, and Governor John Baldacci. It’s working for President Obama, as he has led this country out of the recession. Democrats are aligned with this economic policy. It works. It could work for Gov. LePage.