Governor John Baldacci in his Office at the Maine State House. Photo by Ramona du Houx Winter 2006-2007 Interview by Ramona du Houx Enacting real property tax relief is at the top of Governor Baldacci’s agenda, along with making health care more affordable. In the following interview, he candidly discusses other important issues and how he intends to continue to […]
Governor John Baldacci in his Office at the Maine State House. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Interview by Ramona du Houx
Enacting real property tax relief is at the top of Governor Baldacci’s agenda, along with making health care more affordable. In the following interview, he candidly discusses other important issues and how he intends to continue to move Maine forward in the global economy. (All quotes are attributed to Governor Baldacci.)
“For years we’ve depended upon our business being next door, people coming from one town to another, from one street to another, to do business in our hardware stores, restaurants, and our tool and machine shops. What’s happened is the world has become such a global economy.
“Everyday items come from different parts of the world — which is much different than when I grew up. Maine can be very successful in this global economy. That’s always reinforced when I go on a trade mission.
“It’s not just the big companies — and they certainly do participate — it’s also lobstermen, scallop divers, farmers, everyday people who are realizing that they can sell their goods on an international stage and be successful.
“I have recognized, in the last four years, that many businesses that are successful are businesses where export is a part of their financial picture. When a business has the ability to do business outside of the US and gains income from that export, the longer-term viability of the business is strengthened.
“Our trade missions have been successful with the Maine International Trade Center. We’re looking at undertaking a trip to Asia.”
Funded by the Department of Community and Economic Development, the Maine International Trade Center mission is to promote the expansion of Maine’s economy through increased international trade in goods and services and related activities. Over the last four years trade has increased by 39 percent. The Greater China Desk of the MITC was launched on September 22, 2005, to better facilitate access for Maine businesses to markets in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
“China is important because of the economy that it represents. Someone once told me, if you sold everyone in China a meatball sandwich you’d make a fortune.
“Our country hasn’t developed trade policies that create a level playing field. Our trade polices have tied our hands behind our back — making it hard to compete.”
As a US congressman, Baldacci openly and ardently opposed trade agreements that were not equitable towards American workers. As governor he has kept to his principles and has voiced his frustrations with unfair trade policies. The Chinese UN council visited the governor last year, extending an invitation for him to come to China. The trip is scheduled for 2007.
“My farmers in Aroostook County tell me it’s like the Berlin Wall — nothing goes into Canada but everything comes out. It hasn’t been fair. But those are the rules that exist today. “So how do I beat the competition? In order to compete, you’ve got to know your competition. We need to better understand China’s economy and figure out how we can gain from its growth.
“How can we build an export business with China? We export thousands of pounds of shrimp to England, urchins to Japan, brown eggs to Hong-Kong, so there must be something we have that they want. We need to build up our export business, so we can be shipping products off to China, rather than just them sending us products.
“We need to know the strengths of the competition and what they have for assets or resources. This trip is an opportunity for Maine businesses.
“Creating a strong foundation for trade continues to make sense. We’re laying the foundation for businesses to utilize those resources, so they can do business overseas successfully. I think Mainers are respected for their productivity, equality, craftsmanship, honesty and integrity. So, the more that we get Mainers exposed to the global economy, they will be better off.”
Governor Baldacci has been asked by the National Governors Association to advise Deval Patrick during his transition. At a recent Governors Association meeting in West Virginia, the two had many opportunities to discuss issues. During the same meeting there were numerous enquires from different governors concerning Dirigo Health, which was held up as a successful health-care model.
“Governor Deval Patrick and I, talked together over the weekend about the need for Massachusetts and Maine to work together with our region. We need to promote New England-wide as a region, as a destination place, and an excellent place to do business. We have to do a better job of integrating with each other and promoting New England around the globe.”
Maine is geographically a large state with natural wonders that people have been traveling for centuries to see, mostly from the New England area, but it still lacks exposure throughout America and internationally.
“Maine becomes much more identifiable if we can promote ourselves as a region. Through the New England business council we can make better connections between our rail and broadband Internet. This will enable us to bring New England closer together and at the same time improve our business potential around the world.
“My plan is to expand passenger rail, be able to have better broadband Internet service and to be able to promote our trade missions more as part of a New England and the Eastern Canada Maritimes initiative, rather than just Maine going it alone.”
The governor talks about the improvements that Lincoln Paper Mill recently made with a new state-of-the-art tissue machine. Traditional industries have a role to play in the global economy in Maine. Governor Baldacci fought to keep mill jobs all across the state. In one case he had state troopers keep the receivers from raiding the Lincoln mill. Now that mill has been transformed into a tissue manufacturer with the best technology available. Over four hundred employees are back at work.
“Maine is the number-two state in the nation for paper making. So, as much as we have had consolidations, downsizing, and closings — we’re still number two. Maine is strong in pulp and paper because we still have a 19-million-acre natural resource in our forests, and we’re better at managing them. We’re making sure our forests are harvested in a way that is sustainable.”
Over 7.25 million acres of forest have been certified green because of the governor’s efforts.
“We’ve banned liquidation harvesting, and we’re promoting a value-added component to the business.”
Hancock Lumber has become a model for adding value to a forest industry business. Hancock owns forests and sustainably manages them and now is selling green-certified lumber.
“The paper companies that are here in Maine are profitable, and they are employing tens of thousands of people, earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It’s not as big an industry as it used to be, but it is still a huge part of Maine’s rural economy. What we are doing, in those industries, is we’re building them to be cleaner — to have bio-refineries and renewable energy sources. This helps make them become economic development foundations in their communities.”
Retraining & education — Governor Baldacci created the Community College System in 2003 combining technical colleges together and redefining their role to include more courses; since then enrollment has increased by 48 percent. Recently, the governor’s Community College Advisory Council released a report that said the state needs to invest $20.3 million into the system. The governor said an, “appropriate increase for the community college system will be in the budget.” The long-term goal is for Maine to become aligned with the national average for a state of its population. The report also identified specific areas where Maine has a deficiency in skilled workers, like nursing and welders.
“The world has changed; you’re going to change occupations at least seven or eight times in your lifetime. My parents started working in a job they had for the rest of their lives. People in Maine would go into the mill out of high school and be in the mill until they retired, and that was the norm. Those jobs have changed because the economy has changed. The world is turning much faster in the global economy.
“As a result some people are getting laid off, and downsizing is happening. It’s our responsibility to make sure they don’t stay out of work for long. We need to get unemployed workers immediately into a training-education program which makes sense for them.”
These programs will provide opportunities specifically for a worker’s abilities and potential skills, based on the workplace needs for skilled workers in identified areas.
“Rather than importing people to fill the jobs, or industry sometimes not being able to expand because there are no available skilled workers with appropriate skill sets, we are moving to fill those identified job sectors with Maine workers.
“We are going to have Career Centers, unemployment offices, education and retraining facilities virtually [through ATM-linked TV technology] – seamlessly tied together. So when someone goes for unemployment or when a Department of Labor rapid response team goes to a worksite, they immediately do an innovatory of the skill sets that the unemployed workers have and determine what education and training they need for the jobs that we have identified. So the displaced worker will know what education and training they need for their best-suited future job.
“Ultimately it will become much easier to get a job.”
Baldacci has often expressed how he enjoys working with youth. The state invested over $850 million in education last year, because of the governor’s efforts, working with the Legislature, and state educational funding is to increase to 55 percent over the next biennium. The governor is continuing his work to transition the educational system in Maine from a kindergarten-to-twelfth-grade system (K-12) to a system that incorporates college (K-16).
“Now more than ever, it is critical for the people of Maine to understand the link between education and prosperity. To continue to compete in this global economy, we must acquire the skills necessary to move this state forward.
“We’re going to be building up the rigors in finance, science, and math for high school students.”
The governor is proposing to have a four-year requirement of science and math in high school and more early college programs. Being able to take a college course in high school gives seniors a better understanding of what to expect from college. For some it has been enough to help them decide to attend college.
“The courses are half the cost, and students earn a semester’s worth of credit before they go on to college. It saves students tuition, gets a semester under their belt, and helps them transition to a K-16 model.”
With college grant programs being severely cut at the federal level and college tuition increasing, the average college student graduates $18,000 to $19,000 in debt. The average debt for a college graduate has soared 50 percent in the past decade, adjusted for inflation, according to the Project on Student Debt.
“We have to do more. College students have started a referendum on getting scholarships for students that live and work in Maine. I support that.”
Andrew Bossie, a USM student, is president of Opportunity Maine, which seeks to collect 60,000 signatures for a referendum vote next year. He has proposed that higher education students be given tax credits equal to their student loans, if they agree to live and work in Maine after graduation.
“I’d actually like to try and privately raise the money. It would be necessary to work with the compact for higher education, the business community, and the philanthropic community. If we can raise $100 million for land conservation, I’d like to undertake an effort where we can raise $40 million for college scholarships for 10,000 Maine students. If they live and work in Maine, it becomes a scholarship; if they go out of state, it becomes a student loan.
“I think it’s important to accomplish this — either through the referendum process, working with the students and others that are involved in Opportunity Maine, or through a private fundraising effort.”
Creative economy —
“If you have the quality of life, you’re going to draw naturally talented people from all over. When a cruise ship comes into Bangor, they visit Blue Hill’s art stores. In one case that I was told about by American Cruise Lines, $4,500 was spent. Some of the wealthiest people from all over the country travel here; they love Maine.
“More opportunities are opening up for people that are doing their unique and special things in a creative way. We are working with the different foundations and agencies that will take our art community from the workshops to the Main Street.
“The creative economy is not just the arts and theaters, it’s also technology. We’re going to focus more on math, science, architecture and engineering capabilities at the University of Maine.”
The future — The Brookings Institution report identified Maine’s strengths and weaknesses and made recommendations to help smart growth. The report said that Maine’s fortunes are no longer tied to hard-labor jobs, manufacturers are more productive, and that Maine is beginning to produce high-wage jobs in biotech, precision manufacturing, information technology, composite materials, and other innovative sectors.
“We’ve got researchers at UMO who are extracting ethanol from paper-company discharge. This gives us an opportunity to generate energy and reduce pollution.
“We have innovative ideas here, and as long as we can support and protect those ideas, we will be able to bring in industry that will manufacture and produce them. It’s exciting.
“It’s not to say that we don’t have challenges — we do. Our incomes are below the national average, the cost of administration and the delivery of services is above the national average. But at the same time we have the fifth largest growing in-migration in the country; we’ve got more people moving in here than moving out of here. We recognize that we have a quality of life.
“We have the best workforce and the best natural resources. So how do we change the paradigm so that all our people benefit? We need to be able to expand broadband Internet connections, so we can do more business here and around the world. We need to improve mass transit with passenger rail, so the degradation of our natural resources does not occur. We need to provide support systems, so people find the right employment and so more people can open up businesses and put out their shingle. And with more accessible, affordable education and affordable quality health care, the path to independence and self-sufficiency can become a reality for more Mainers.
“What you’re going to see in Maine is income growth for more Mainers. The state is going to catch up to the national average, instead of being below the average. We will go above it. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.
“We can enjoy the beautiful things we have in the state and protect them for future generations, while we draw down good incomes and more opportunities for the people of Maine open up. And that’s the future for Maine.”