January 9, 2013

The Democrat lawmakers of the 126th legislature announcing their plans to grow the middle class and strengthen the economy at the Statehouse on January 9, 2013.

“Maine people want a focus that will foster a better business environment, create jobs, and grow our economy,” said Senate President Justin Alfond. “We have a plan to work with employees and employers to make sure workers have the skills that businesses need.”

Democratic leaders outlined four policy priorities of that plan for the 126th Legislature at a press conference this morning:

  • Developing Maine’s workforce,
  • Strengthening Maine’s public schools,
  • Lowering health-care and energy costs for more Maine families and small businesses, and
  • Investing in Maine’s future through research and development and roads and bridges.

According to the Department of Labor statistics, more than 50,000 Mainers remain out of work. Maine’s economy was the only one in New England that shrank last year and one of three states in the nation to have revenues fall below projections. Many attribute these failings to LePage administration policies, like not releasing bond funding that would have created immediate jobs, and focusing on cutting MaineCare instead of job creation.

House Speaker Mark Eves said lowering health-care and energy costs and investing in infrastructure and research and development are also key to improving Maine’s economy.

“We must work to put more money in the pockets of Maine families and small businesses,” said Eves. “We can do that by working on real solutions that lower our health-care and energy costs.”

Eves said lawmakers should continue to focus on bipartisan energy solutions, including energy efficiency and diversifying Maine’s energy sources to reduce the state’s dependency on oil. He also indicated Democrats would work toward lowering health-care costs by addressing care management and making necessary changes to the health insurance law Republicans passed last session, which resulted in health insurance premium increases for 90 percent of small businesses.

Earlier this month, Democrats announced the formation of a special committee to address the state’s “skills gap” and workforce development needs. According to a study by Maine’s Community College System, 4,000 jobs between now and 2018 will remain unfilled because of unqualified workers.

In addition to the skills gap, Alfond said Democrats would focus on strengthening public schools and early childhood education, noting that Democrats, Republicans, parents and teachers alike share the goal of making students and education a priority.

“We will make the classroom the best learning environment it can be by supporting our teachers, providing our schools with the tools they need — and the dollars needed to acquire these tools,” said Alfond.

Both leaders emphasized the need for collaboration.

“We need to come together in order to solve our problems. We must do better, and if everyone pitches in, we can make Maine a better state,” said Eves. “While we might not always agree, we will always seek common ground in order to strengthen the economy and grow the middle class.”

Gov. Paul LePage’s second biennial budget proposal is expected to be announced Friday. If LePage has similar tax proposals to those in 2011, which gave more money to Maine’s top 2 percent and shifted spending to municipalities thus increasing property taxes, House Majority Leader Seth Berry, who sat on the Tax Committee, said there will be a fight for the middle class from Democrats.

“If the same proposals are voiced again, I think you’re likely to see a pushback from Maine people,” said Berry. “It’s the people’s voice that comes first in this process.”

Small business leaders responded to the Democrats’ proposals.

“We’re glad to see that one of these priorities is fixing the rate-hike bill, Public Law 90, and that House Speaker Mark Eves cited the rate hikes experienced by Maine Small Business Coalition members in his remarks as a problem that must be addressed,” said Maine Small Business Coalition Director Kevin Simowitz.

Public Law 90 has resulted in insurance rates increasing on most of the people effected by the law. It has hurt businesses and seniors in rural areas dramatically forcing some businesses to stop offering insurance plans to their employees.

In response to the Democrats’ announcement, Assistant House Republican Leader Alexander Willette said Democrats were being “wishy-washy.”