Maine’s next governor will inherit a mixed economy that features strengths such as record-low unemployment, and weaknesses such as a shrinking labor pool and stagnant population growth.

It’s an economy that is shifting from rural to urban, with mills and factories shedding jobs while service-oriented industries such as health care and tourism are creating new ones. Southern Maine is enjoying relative prosperity, but economic decline continues to dog many other areas of the state, and there is no clear solution to the problem.

How will the next governor of Maine approach economic challenges such as the state’s worker shortage, the rising cost of housing and the decline of traditional industries such as forest products? What policies will the next governor promote to attract new employers and skilled workers to Maine?

The four contenders in Maine’s upcoming gubernatorial election – Republican Shawn Moody, Democrat Janet Mills and independent candidates Terry Hayes and Alan Caron – all have emphasized the significance of workforce and economic issues in their campaigns. Still, each candidate favors a different approach to workforce development, economic incentives, housing costs and boosting private industry.

Here is a look at where each of the four candidates for governor stands on key economic issues:

Confronting Maine’s shortage of skilled workers

Caron said one reason for the shortage is that Maine has stripped much of the practical and technical education out of its primary and secondary school curricula over the past generation in the mistaken belief that every student would – or should – go on to college.

“Now we must rebuild that capacity, from top to bottom,” he said. “That won’t solve our immediate needs, but it will help us get ahead of this problem in the future.”

Caron said there aren’t enough Mainers entering the workforce, both because the population is aging and because “we’ve been sending all of the wrong signals to the country about how welcoming we are to ‘people from away’ and skilled immigrants.”

Hayes said she believes Maine’s demographics are both the state’s greatest challenge and its greatest opportunity. She favors supporting efforts already underway by the MaineSpark initiative, which seeks to ensure that by 2025, at least 60 percent of all adult Mainers will hold some sort of career-boosting educational or vocational credential.

“Maine businesses, education institutions and nonprofits are already galvanized around this challenge, and I will work with the Legislature to support their efforts as needed with policy initiatives that are likely to include investing in young people who invest in Maine, promoting our institutions of higher learning, boosting worker participation in Maine’s economy, leveraging our growing retiree population and welcoming legal immigrants,” Hayes said.

Mills said addressing the state’s workforce challenges would be one of her top priorities as governor. She seeks to ensure the state is viewed as a partner to businesses and not just another bureaucratic impediment when it comes to finding and training workers.

“I will do that by refining and refocusing state programs to make it easier for workers to find the training they need, regardless of where they live, and use the model of the Maine Quality Centers to match education and training curriculum to the workforce needs of today,” Mills said. “We will also continue to expand educational opportunities for Maine students to meet the workforce needs of today and tomorrow, including building out vocational tech courses, bonding for equipment for the (career technical education programs), and expanding computer science curricula.”

Moody said he would reform the state’s career technical education and vocational education programs to ensure students have an opportunity to learn about careers in the trades at a younger age, and to ensure those programs teach the skills needed to secure good-paying jobs.

“I would also spearhead a program to strategically reach out to our former Mainers, and attract them to come home to Maine to live, work and raise their families,” he said. “Tuition reimbursement and student loan forgiveness are creative ways to incentivize people to come home to Maine.”

Moody said the state also needs statutory reforms to make it easier for teenagers to enter the workforce. He favors providing tax credits to employers that hire teenagers, which Moody said encourages apprenticeships and internships for young people.

What is government’s role in the economy?

Hayes said that more than any tax breaks, business loan programs or other financial incentives, a plentiful supply of skilled and productive workers is what would help Maine attract and retain businesses.

“It is in our shared interest for state government to play a leadership role in matching our education and lifelong training resources with the needs of our businesses,” she said.

Mills said the state cannot, and should not, attempt to solve every economic problem, but that it can play a critical role in providing technical, financial and training assistance to Maine businesses. Her plan is to streamline the state’s current “alphabet soup of economic development agencies” into a single entity called the Maine Growth Authority that would drive economic growth.

“I will also create a Small Business Accelerator to serve as a one-stop shop for small businesses to access financing opportunities, to train workers and to navigate regulations,” Mills said. “My administration will also provide loans to small businesses who add new jobs along with tax incentives to attract former Mainers home, as part of my Welcome Home Program, so they can settle here, start a family, and help contribute to our future.”

Moody said that as governor, he would push for several initiatives that would help create jobs and grow the state economy. His primary objective would be to reduce “job-killing red tape” to ensure Maine has a strong but predictable regulatory framework.

“I would streamline our permitting process to make it faster and less costly to get projects started,” Moody said. “Lastly, I would work tirelessly to continue to reduce taxes and health care costs for hardworking Maine families and job creators.”

Caron said Maine government needs to act more strategically and develop a long-range vision for economic development rather than simply responding to “the loudest immediate crisis and political influence.”

“Over many decades, we focused mostly on ‘attracting’ jobs, as though we can sneak into another state late at night and take their best jobs,” he said. “It has been largely a colossal waste of energy and time. What we need to do is to ‘grow’ jobs here and focus on the little guys, the small businesses, the innovators and doers of Maine.”

Caron also noted that it is not the role of government to pick “winners and losers” among the state’s various industries.

The rising cost of housing

Mills said all Mainers, especially seniors, should have access to safe and affordable housing, and that her first act as governor would be to approve the $15 million senior housing bond for construction and weatherization “that has been sitting on the governor’s desk for three years.”

Mills said her economic action plan includes “Age-in-Place” grants to help aging Mainers remain in their homes. She also would strengthen the state’s affordable housing financing program and perform a comprehensive, annual assessment of the state of housing in every region across Maine.

“My administration will then work with the local governments to see how we can build new workforce housing, improve current housing, and ensure that all Maine people have a safe, affordable place to live,” Mills said.

Moody said the most important thing Maine can do to address concerns about housing affordability is to continue to grow and strengthen the state’s economy. A stronger economy would result in higher-paying jobs for Maine families, he said, and higher wages would offset the cost of housing.

“We also must encourage home ownership,” Moody said. “Student loan forgiveness programs can ease the debt burden on our young people which can free up resources for them to save and purchase their first home.”

Caron said there are limitations to what the state can do to influence housing affordability, but he said one action would be to restore the power of the Maine State Housing Authority, “which has been restrained under the current administration.”

Caron said he would continue to support historic redevelopment tax credits and be more aggressive about seeking federal funding for affordable housing.

“The larger problem of affordability, though, has to be addressed at the local level,” he said. “It is too often the case that local planning restrictions, including lot-size requirements, unit-size stipulations and parking requirements, limit the density of housing in many communities and restrict the ability to reuse older structures in our downtowns for housing.”

Hayes said the issue of affordable housing manifests itself differently in different regions of Maine, and that state government interventions should be tailored to those differences.

“The Maine State Housing Authority programs provide some assistance for first-time and lower-income home buyers,” she said. “Additional investment of state dollars into these programs will be a good place to start.”

Growing and declining industries in Maine

Moody said the biotech industry in Maine has a high potential for growth, while some heritage industries such as forestry, fishing and farming are modernizing and adapting to make themselves more diverse and competitive in the future. He said Maine needs to focus on growing a skilled workforce while promoting policies that benefit all industries, such as lower taxes, streamlined permitting and lower health care and energy costs.

“We’ve seen some of our natural resource industries decline in recent years,” Moody said. “We need to partner with our public institutions to require a higher percentage of Maine products be used. We also need to increase our focus on rural tourism and promote not only our outdoor heritage, but the various recreational opportunities available.”

Caron said the goal of state government should be to create the conditions for success and then “let the doers of Maine and the marketplace decide which industries will grow and which will not.” He said Maine should regard itself as an incubator that enables businesses and residents to prosper.

“We should be careful about expending too many of our limited resources on propping up yesterday’s jobs rather than spawning tomorrow’s,” he said. “There is always a political instinct to do that, for obvious reasons, but in the marketplace, ideas and products must rise or fall on their merit.”

Hayes said she agrees with the assessment of Focus Maine, an economic development group made up of prominent business leaders, that agriculture, aquaculture and biopharmaceuticals are industries in Maine that have the greatest potential for growth over the next few years. Ensuring companies in those fields have an adequate pool of potential employees from which they can draw as they grow and expand should be of utmost importance, she said.

“I also look forward to supporting the efforts of businesses and organizations seeking to revitalize Maine’s rural economy by sustaining and growing Maine’s existing and emerging forest products economy,” Hayes said. “I don’t believe that the government needs to be the leader in these areas, but government can be a good partner/collaborator to support success within existing private sector efforts.”

Mills said Maine is full of flourishing industries, and Mainers are working hard to transform struggling industries and revitalize the state’s rural communities.

“Fisheries, forestry and farming in Maine all have the potential to diversify and thrive if state government works with them to promote the research, the financial planning, the trained workforce, and the lower energy costs they need,” she said. “More Mainers can become entrepreneurs, start businesses, and grow our economy if we send the message that we welcome sustainable, good-paying jobs.”

 

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