Maine’s senior forest products adviser and an industry liaison for Gov. Paul LePage said he hopes a federal team deployed to the state to come up with an economic plan for the forest products industry is successful, yet he has no plans to get involved in their efforts.

Rosaire Pelletier, senior forest products adviser to LePage, made the comments even as members of the team said Thursday that it will be critical for state, federal and industry leaders to work together if the project is to work.

“Do you think I should run after them?” Pelletier said in an interview. “My focus is on attracting investors to the state of Maine.”

The Economic Development Assessment Team, composed of more than two dozen federal officials from eight agencies, arrived in Maine on Wednesday for a three-day tour of the state with industry leaders in an effort to gain an understanding of the challenges and assets of the forest products and paper industry.

No state government officials are part of the team, even though federal officials say they have been invited to participate.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has criticized the team’s presence in the state, labeling it in a statement as part of “another failed stimulus package” from the federal government that he says skirts around one of the real issues facing the industry: tariffs on Canadian paper imports that are hurting companies with business operations in Maine.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, who requested the deployment of the federal team, have reiterated their support for the so-called EDAT team despite the lack of participation from state officials, although they also agreed that the U.S. Department of Commerce needs to re-examine the tariffs it universally placed on supercalendered paper imports in November. The plans for the team were announced last month in conjunction with $7.7. million in federal grant money to be invested in the Maine forest products industry as part of a long-term economic plan.

“There is no question that we need to be fiscally responsible with our federal tax dollars and smart about the role and influence of the federal government,” said U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, in a statement on the EDAT team Thursday. “That said, this is a worthy use of the government’s efforts to move forward opportunities for Maine’s industries and jobs.”

King, an independent senator who participated in a roundtable discussion with the team Thursday, said it is critical that they understand the challenges the forest products industry faces and “how we can address them together.” Collins, a Republican, has said manufacturing “is the lifeblood of so many of our rural communities, and reinvigorating it requires partnerships.”

Meanwhile, some local officials have said that they are eager to see what the team comes up with and happy just that they are investing time and resources into the industry already.

Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand, whose town is home to the Sappi North America paper mill, said Thursday that while she was not familiar with the tariff issue, she sees the EDAT team as a generally good thing. The team is scheduled to visit the Skowhegan mill on Friday.

“It’s great to see that (the federal government) has recognized that we need some assistance in the area,” Almand said. “I know a lot of people like (Sens.) King and Collins pushed for it. Hopefully, the federal government, as well as other things that are being done, can help us find some solutions.”

STATE INVOLVEMENT

Meanwhile, industry leaders involved with the team in Maine said Thursday that they have reached out to state officials about participation in the effort, but so far none has accepted.

“I think (their level of involvement) will depend on what initiatives we come up with, but so many projects depend on state agencies playing a supporting role in some way, so we certainly hope that once specific initiatives are identified they will help to push forward,” said Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation and co-chairman of the Maine Forest Economy EDAT Planning Committee.

Breen said he thought the state was taking a “wait and see” approach before getting involved with any of the EDAT efforts.

In addition, Breen said he did not have extensive knowledge of the tariff issue and could not say whether it was a good reason for the state not to be working with the U.S. Department of Commerce on the EDAT.

However, co-chairman Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said he sees the two issues as separate. While it is important to address the tariff issue, “I think it’s kind of mixing apples and oranges,” he said.

“Maybe the governor has a reason to connect the two, but in my mind it’s a separate issue,” Strauch said.

Adrienne Bennett, press secretary for LePage, and Peter Steele, the governor’s director of communications, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

LePage frequently has blasted legislators for turning a blind eye to the forests products industry’s woes by not supporting his agenda, which he says calls for lowering energy costs to help businesses, particularly paper mills, stay open. His administration also has become directly involved previously in trying to save shuttered paper mills, including the Bucksport and Lincoln mills that eventually closed and were sold off for scrap.

In 2014, for instance, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor remained dedicated to protecting the Bucksport mill from being dismantled and was “looking into whatever options may be available to him.”

“If there is anything the state can do to step in, we will do so in the best interest of the employees,” Bennett said at the time.

TARIFFS AT ISSUE

In a letter released by LePage’s office Wednesday, he says he is disappointed in the way the U.S. Department of Commerce acted in response to the closure of several paper mills in Maine. While the economic team “may be well-intentioned,” LePage said in his letter, the department has placed an “unnecessary burden” on Maine businesses by enacting the tariffs, which were requested by Madison Paper Industries and Verso Corp. in response to illegal subsidies the Nova Scotia provincial government was giving to one company.

Other companies, including Catalyst Paper, which employs about 700 in Rumford, and Irving Paper Ltd., which employs more than 450 in Maine, say they were unfairly grouped in with the Nova Scotia company and now are paying duties for illegal subsidies they never received.

In an interview Thursday, Len Posyniak, senior vice president of human resources and corporate services for Catalyst, said that since a tariff of more than 18 percent was placed on the company’s supercalendered paper imports last year, it has had a direct financial impact on the company and their ability to invest in all five of their mills, including in Rumford.

Posyniak also said he was grateful for the attention the governor has drawn to the issue as his company awaits a review by the Department of Commerce.

When asked about the tariffs, Pelletier said they are hurting the two Canadian-based companies with business operations in Maine — but did not list it as a reason why he is not working with the EDAT team.

Instead, Pelletier said he was not aware of what the EDAT team’s goals were for Maine and said several times that he is “focused on trying to get investors to come to Maine.”

Attracting investment to the state, particularly in research and development and new products, was also mentioned at Wednesday’s opening EDAT session, but when it was mentioned that EDAT might share that goal with the state, Pelletier would not comment.

In the future, if the team comes up with an initiative focused on attracting new investment, Pelletier said, he would consider working with them.

“I can’t really say until I see what they come up with,” he said. “If there is something the federal government could do, I wouldn’t discriminate.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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