There are two things that no reasonable Mainer should expect this time of year: One is a mudless spring, and the other is a productive Legislature during a race for governor.
Spring now looks like it will arrive by the Fourth of July, and the Legislature has become a platform for each party to launch missiles against its opposition. All of which is causing most of us to develop serious neck cramps from too much shoulder-shrugging.
As much as we lament the current state of government and politics, it’s important to acknowledge good work when we see it, and a terrific piece of work has been making its way slowly through the flashing lights and loud explosions otherwise known as the legislative process during an election year. It is a plan to stimulate the economy that has support in both parties.
We certainly have no shortage of partisan plans for the economy that go nowhere because they cancel out each other. Once in a while, however, a truly nonpartisan idea emerges with the potential to make a real difference. Here’s one: Invest in Maine’s innovators, entrepreneurs and small businesses so that they can help grow a new economy in Maine.
To do that, we have to provide more support to successful programs that offer grants and loans to emerging businesses and support basic research that can spawn new companies and create new jobs.
For months, the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future has been holding hearings and reaching out to people in forums across the state, asking what we can do to grow new jobs. With strong bipartisan support, the committee has recommended a $73 million bond issue that will help jumpstart the state’s growing innovation and entrepreneurial economy everywhere from southern Maine to Aroostook County.
L.D. 1827 does exactly what a bond for economic growth should do, which is to target investments to organizations and, through competitive awards, to companies that we know are successful and that have a strong prospect of adding jobs. It includes investments in both research and job growth, both of which are important.
Maine spends only half as much as the rest of the country on research and development, and just a quarter of what the rest of New England spends. We invest just 1 percent of our gross domestic product on research and development, while we should be spending something closer to 3 percent, with predictable consequences.
When it comes to loans and direct help to small businesses and entrepreneurs, we have some highly acclaimed and successful programs at work, but they’re constantly being cash-starved while we busy ourselves with throwing money at things that don’t produce results.
Here’s what the $73 million bond will fund:
â€¢ $15 million to Finance Authority of Maine and the Maine Technology Institute to replenish their business loan and grant funds. Loans and grants made by these two agencies in recent years have leveraged as much as $16 of investments for every state dollar.
â€¢ $15 million for rural economic development that is expected to generate $120 million in new investments.
â€¢ $15 million for a new medical analytics center at Jackson Laboratories that could make Maine a global resource for precision medicine, and help attract more young professionals to Maine.
â€¢ $15 million for competitively awarded investments in the marine economy, focused on marine infrastructure and job creation.
â€¢ $5 million to increase the state’s biotechnology workforce training to 500 students a year.
â€¢ $8 million to expand research at the Cooperative Extension Service in agricultural diseases and pests, as well as threats to forests, wildlife and human health, including from the exploding population of ticks.
Money is always tight in Maine, and we certainly can’t fund every good idea that comes out of Augusta, but here’s an idea that above all others invests in the future and in the engines of growth for tomorrow. It’s an idea that has the potential to rise above the politics of the election cycle, create broad support among the public and have a real and lasting impact on Maine’s economy.
Congratulations to the leaders of the committee, Senate chairwoman Linda Valentino and House Majority Leader Seth Berry, and to the committee as a whole. They deserve not only our applause but also our enthusiastic support for this bipartisan approach to economic growth. Let’s hope that the Appropriations Committee and the full Legislature will be inspired by their example.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and co-author of an upcoming book titled “Maine’s Next Economy.” Email at [email protected]