State lawmakers are taking aim at Maine’s economic development initiatives to address criticism of the programs and improve their effectiveness.

A state-sponsored report issued this month says that while economic development programs in Maine have helped many businesses, they often are regarded as confusing and difficult to find and use. It goes on to say that many businesses don’t trust the programs to make good on their promises because of the state’s political turmoil.

The 250-page report, conducted by Boston-based Investment Consulting Associates for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, says economic development programs that provide help and incentives to businesses are crucial to Maine’s efforts to attract and grow companies.

A public comment session is scheduled for Friday morning in Augusta to get feedback on a nine-point plan to fix the problems mentioned in the report.

Maine economic development leaders said the report, which is based in part on a survey of businesses, echoes many of the criticisms they have heard firsthand.

“Our processes are cumbersome; they’re bureaucratic,” said Brian Whitney, director of the Maine Technology Institute. “We’ve heard a lot of these concerns, so we’re aware of that.”

The institute is one of several industry-specific organizations that offer economic assistance in Maine. Overall, it got high marks from businesses in the report. Still, some former program applicants criticized its lack of follow-up in instances where companies applied for grants or loans but didn’t receive them. They also said the institute’s programs lack clear evaluation criteria and program requirements.

In other words, the businesses said they didn’t understand what was needed to successfully apply for help, and no one bothered to tell them why they failed to receive it. Whitney saidthe Maine Technology Institute is working on fixing those problems.

Many of the shortcomings highlighted in the report apply to Maine economic incentive programs in general:

• Companies are frustrated by the difficulty of finding, understanding and applying for help.

• The confusion and lack of information contribute to a negative perception about doing business in Maine.

• Businesses don’t trust Maine economic development organizations to honor their commitments in a constantly shifting political landscape.

• Economic development programs too often ignore small and entrepreneurial businesses, which make up most of Maine’s economy.

• Maine lacks a unifying vision or plan tying together all of the disparate organizations, initiatives and programs.

George Gervais, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said some frustrations are bound to happen at the intersection of public and private interests.

“Any company dealing with government is going to reach a point of frustration at some point, because they are speaking a different language,” he said.

Still, Gervais said Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is seeking ways to simplify the application process for economic programs in a way that does not hinder government accountability and the vetting of applicants.

The administration also wants to overhaul some aspects of the laws that are designed to evaluate and improve the state’s economic incentive programs. Proposed changes include:

• Requiring Maine to develop and maintain a formal economic development strategy.

• Creating a process for the Department of Economic and Community Development to collect data from organizations receiving assistance in order to evaluate their effectiveness.

• Granting the department the “authority and clout” to compel organizations to provide the requested data.

• Ensuring that government staff and/or elected officials act upon the results of the department’s evaluations and recommendations.

Gervais said government officials evaluate state economic development programs on a regular basis, as required by statute. However, too little action has been taken to address the weaknesses identified in those evaluations or use them to develop a broader strategic plan.

“They’ve been backed into doing nothing but benchmarking,” he said.

One commonly cited weakness in Maine is a lack of coordination, where too many of Maine’s economic development efforts are targeting the same kinds of business, while other types are largely ignored.

For example, the report notes that while Maine offers various forms of assistance to very large and very small companies, there is a gap for companies with 20 to 100 employees. Even simple things like free advice on how to handle a worker’s compensation case are hard for them to find, it says.

In addition to industry-specific economic development groups and those targeting businesses of a particular size, there are also regional organizations in various parts of the state, Gervais said.

“To align all that? Almost impossible,” he said. “But you don’t stop trying.”

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