Maine taxpayers are on the hook for $15.6 million to pay Wall Street bankers for creating jobs in the Katahdin region. But where are the jobs?

They never materialized. Instead, the region got a bankrupt company seeking to pay off a mountain of debt through liquidation of the Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket, possibly ending a century of paper-making there.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler has called the debacle “corporate welfare and crony capitalism at its worst,” and he is right. But he could have added that it also was a typical example of the way large-scale economic development has worked in this state for a long time.

If you needed a reason why we should not run from crisis to crisis and throw money at troubled companies, this is it. Cutler charges that LePage should have recognized that Cate Street Capital, the only bidder for the bankrupt paper mills, was too financially unstable to pull off its plan. Instead, LePage worked both publicly and behind the scenes to put together enough inducements to save at least some of the jobs in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

In addition to the $15.6 million in New Markets tax credits, which refund money to investors whether or not they pay taxes, the company also benefited from state property tax rebates under the business equipment tax reimbursement program — even though it didn’t pay its property tax.

The governor made a high-stakes gamble (with our money) and lost. For a politician who says he’s really a businessman, this was a very bad business decision. But every time a major employer shuts its doors, there is tremendous public pressure for government to do something to save the jobs. The laid-off employees are desperate, and the state government is desperate, too. That leads to bad decisions, like this one.

In hindsight, wouldn’t Mainers have been better off if the state had sent more than $15 million to the Katahdin region to finance new businesses, instead of sending the money to Wall Street? Instead of trying to save 200 mill jobs, the goal could have been helping start 20 businesses that each employ 10 people.

That would not be a quick solution, but the problems in the Katahdin region paper mills did not happen overnight, either.

That kind of effort to get involved in economic development is usually fought by Republicans like LePage, who say that it’s wrong for the government to pick winners and losers. But if we throw public money at foundering companies, we are just picking losers.

Cutler says he would develop an economic plan for the region that builds on forest resources and tourism. Democrat Mike Michaud has proposed state involvement in promoting alternative energy and agriculture, two sectors that could grow and create jobs to offset the mill jobs that are probably gone forever.

But both candidates should also forswear the kind of high-stakes bet that the LePage administration made on Cate Street and that Maine residents will be paying for in the years to come.

Corporate welfare is wrong, no matter who does it.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: