Maine wins when we make smart investments in our future. The recent State House approval of a bipartisan jobs and infrastructure bond package was just such a win. Looking ahead, we must next consider funding for research and economic development.
The Legislature did the right thing for our economy and middle class by passing targeted investments in our transportation and higher education infrastructure, as well as our National Guard armories. Importantly, the $149.5 million, bipartisan package also shows how Democrats and Republicans can put aside differences for the good of Maine people.
If voters approve the bonds at the polls in November, they will help our recovery catch up with other states, putting Maine people back to work.
Maine’s roads and bridges, working waterfronts and ports account for $100 million of this package — and for good reason. Our roads perform badly on report cards from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Their poor condition costs the average motorist $245 more in extra repair and operating costs annually.
The deteriorating conditions of our armories, their uninsulated ceilings, roof leaks and makeshift spaces, cost us all more in the long run and undervalues the heroic men and women of our National Guard. This $14 million bond will leverage generous federal matches and make needed renovations and repairs possible. Energy efficiency measures will cut operating costs significantly.
Bonds for the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy account for $35.5 million of the package. Much of this will help Maine progress in the STEM fields: the science, technology, engineering and math fields that hold so much opportunity for graduates.
These investments would inject money into our economy at a critical time, putting Mainers in the construction trades back to work. They renovate and maintain important, public infrastructure. Equally crucial, they invest in people: today’s students, who are tomorrow’s workforce.
This investment dovetails with the work of the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, which I co-chair. This summer, our bipartisan, unanimous legislation to increase training opportunities and help workers upgrade their skills became law.
Our state faces a skills gap — a mismatch between current workforce skills and those employers need. Maine needs 15,000 more highly skilled workers to remain competitive in the global economy. A strong education system at all levels, starting with our very youngest, is key to our prosperity.
As we traveled the state, committee members heard about other needs, ones related to research and development as well as economic and community development.
We heard about the successes of Communities for Maine’s Future, a bond-funded program that strengthens our downtowns. We saw firsthand how historic downtowns are economic engines for growth, able to attract not only summer visitors, but also young and talented workers.
Small business owners told us about their need for access to capital. The reluctance of commercial lenders today is understandable, but it cuts off promising businesses from using historically low rates. A revolving fund at the Finance Authority of Maine addresses this need and has a sterling track record, but it has run out of money.
Last and not least, we heard about the importance of public-private research and development through entities such as the Maine Technology Institute. An industry-led, publicly funded, nonprofit corporation, the institute offers early-stage capital and commercialization assistance to research, develop and apply new technologies, generating high-quality jobs across Maine.
Maine is 45th in the nation in R&D investment. According to a recent Maine Economic Growth Council report, we put only about 1 percent of our gross domestic product into R&D rather than the 3 percent recommended to expand our innovation economy. Maine invests at half the level of the nation as a whole and not even one-quarter of the New England rate.
These facts are troubling, yet they also represent an opportunity to move Maine forward with a third, bipartisan step in a historically divided State House.
Last month, the Legislature’s budget-writing committee received strongly worded investment advice from Dr. Charlie Colgan, former state economist and a policy expert with the Muskie School’s Maine Center for Business and Economic Research. He noted that Maine has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” because of extremely low interest rates and low debt per capita. He exhorted us to do more, and to do it soon. And he spoke at length about the importance of our “innovation economy.”
Last week’s bipartisan vote positioned Maine to recover. By acting on a robust research and economic development bond in January, we also can position Maine to lead.
House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, is serving his fourth term in the Legislature. He is co-chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future.