A while back, I reviewed the plan by Eliot Cutler to reshape Maine’s economy and government, generally commending it, despite some flaws. I’ve also criticized Gov. Paul LePage’s plan for its emphasis of giving big businesses from away lavish handouts while not giving small businesses here much of a hand up.
Now Mike Michaud has released his economic plan, called Maine Made. First, he and the campaign are to be complemented for putting together a comprehensive plan that tells voters what they want to do and how they will govern. It is well-written and accessible.
The plan has many ideas that are essential to growing Maine’s next economy. At the top of the list are finding non-partisan solutions and growing small businesses in Maine. They also hit the nail on the head when talking about Maine becoming New England’s “food basket,” emphasizing the importance of expanding solar power and coming to grips with climate change.
Most of the ideas in the plan are things a majority of Mainers would support, if we had unlimited funds to work with. Of course, we don’t, and that is the challenge for the next governor. Virtually every idea in Maine Made costs money, and there are only two ways to fund such an ambitious agenda. One is to restructure government so that savings can be redeployed for new priorities. The other is through tax reforms that include some increases in taxes, ideally targeted at people who live outside of Maine.
This plan doesn’t spell out how it will pay for new initiatives, but it does promise that follow-up plans will look more closely at restructuring government and taxes. Until then, we’re left to admire what we could buy without knowing where the money comes from.
Here are three areas where the campaign can strengthen the ideas it proposes:
â€¢ Focusing on a small business, entrepreneurial economy: This is the best idea in the plan, but it attacks a big shift in direction as though it can be done by tinkering. While the plan calls for a $100 million bond for “small business infrastructure,” it doesn’t spell out how those bonds will provide any practical benefit to small businesses, except those in the construction industry.
The list of what the bond would fund reads pretty much like the list of bonds we’ve been debating for decades, dominated by roads and bridges with smaller amounts for education, the environment and research. While an argument can be made for some kind of trickle-down benefit to small business from any bonding, unless there is something more that goes directly to small businesses, the ideas don’t match the title.
As to direct benefit to small businesses, there isn’t much. Better cooperation with existing organizations is suggested. Creating a “Domestic Trade Center” within the existing International Trade Center is another. But the total investment there is just $200,000 per year, which amounts to a few people with desks and cell phones.
â€¢ Providing free tuition to college sophomores: The goal of lowering the cost of higher education is a commendable one, but to do that without suggesting any structural changes in higher education is a stretch. At last count, we have as many as 35 campuses and satellite campuses of the university and community college systems, all serving a state with the population of San Diego.
Giving students a sophomore reduction in tuition without tying those investments to serious and well-planned restructuring runs the risk of doing little more than pouring money down a very large drain.
â€¢ Universal pre-K education in Maine: Another laudable goal that will pay big dividends down the road, but nowhere is there a true cost of doing it. The plan points to the partial costs of the initiative, but only in the first year, as though the continuing and full costs don’t matter and won’t increase.
If Michaud believes that the public should ante up for an expansion of public school to include universal pre-K, I commend him for doing that. But let’s not cover up the price tag while we’re trying to make the sale.
The chances of achieving any of those goals will be increased greatly with a better sense of priorities. Some of these initiatives require big shifts in thinking and deeply ingrained habits. They will succeed only with determined focus, time and skill. The last thing Maine or the next governor needs is another 100-point plan that takes on too much and does too little. We’ve got stacks of those already.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan Consulting Group, and president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]