At the start of 2020, state officials like Hannah Pingree had a hopeful vision of what would be possible for Maine.

Hannah Pingree, who heads Maine’s Office of Innovation and the Future, will co-chair the council. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Maine’s 10-year economic plan had been released and work was underway on, among other things, the state’s climate action plan, which is expected to be released on Dec. 1.

Then in March, everything changed with the declaration of the global coronavirus pandemic and a refocusing of priorities for the state.

Pingree, the director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, on Wednesday summed up the situation the state finds itself in.

“We’re entering a more difficult period for Maine people,” Pingree said at a Chamber Connection event put on by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce via Zoom. “The winter holiday season can be great, but winter is rough for people and this pandemic is creating economic challenges — challenges for families, challenges for state workers and the budget.”

Coupled with that, Pingree said, the inability of federal elected officials to reach an agreement about extending the pandemic relief program is both frustrating and disappointing.

“People are feeling burned out,” she said. “I’m not going to lie. It’s a challenging time.”

The Office of Policy Innovation and the Future is charged with working with other state agencies in developing policies to address issues critical to the state and its residents. The office’s current focus areas are climate and energy, opioid response and prevention, the Children’s Cabinet, workforce development, and innovation and economic opportunities for Maine.

Since the early days of the pandemic, Pingree said, her office has been supporting the work state agencies are doing in COVID-19 response and communications.

State officials are hoping that Congress will be able to reach an agreement on pandemic aid, and that will help.

“I think Maine is kind of at the end of its road,” she said. “We’ve spent most of the money (that) has come from the federal government. Our state revenues are down. There’s a difficult budget coming in terms of how do we even pay for the healthcare and education needs of the people of Maine and do everything else at a time when there’s going to be less money?”

Even with those challenges, she said, the need to plan ahead and grow the economy still exists.

She highlighted the work that’s going on to address the anticipated impacts of climate change on the state, plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the economic opportunities that are expected as a result, including the growing demand for skilled workers.

“We still need to stay focused on economic growth and the pieces of that economic growth,” she said. “Whether it’s internet access, attracting workforce, whether it’s job training and education for kids. If we give up on those things, we’re sacrificing the long term. I feel very positive about the opportunities Maine has.”

Among them are the state’s forest resources with a potential for growth in forest products, the energy sector with growth in both solar and wind power and relatively new opportunity that the pandemic has highlighted: Remote work.

“We certainly don’t want everybody to move to Maine,” she said, noting the heating up of the residential real estate market in parts of the state as people from other states look to relocate to less congested areas with easy access to outdoor recreation.

At the same time, state officials are looking for a balance to keep those people in Maine, rather than have them become second-home owners, making homes more expensive for state residents.

“We’re all feeling a little more burned out and depressed, but I think  some of this vaccine stuff gives us a little light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “And again, we’ve just got to stay focused on the opportunities Maine has and what makes Maine great to make Maine even better. So I’m trying to take a positive approach at least for today.”

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