Once again the budget ax is swinging in Augusta as the state faces a revenue shortfall. The governor and the Legislature have been doing a remarkable job in responding to cuts over the years. It is time for new approaches and thinking.
Maine, from an ongoing, economic diversification development perspective, has not been doing well. If we listen closely we will hear the outcry against this observation, but it will not be one that can be backed by substantive evidence of new, large diversified economic activity, high-paying employment opportunities and attraction of new large businesses from out of state.
John Kennedy wrote some time ago that to “state the facts frankly is neither to indict the past nor despair for the future.” What we are doing as a state to diversify and strengthen our economy is simply not working. The major industries that were the foundation of our economy (agriculture, fishing, forestry, tourism, etc.) 30 years ago remain largely the same.
We have seen significant, documentable declines in manufacturing jobs in Maine over the last 15 years that are far above that of the rest of the region and the nation. We have seen an exodus of young people from the state as our elderly population grows. We cannot shrink our way to prosperity and the time for change is now.
The time for inflammatory rhetoric, finger-pointing and ad hominem attacks is over. The leadership of the state (governor, executive branches, Legislature, corporate and community) has a golden opportunity to fundamentally alter the direction of the state for generations to come, but how might we approach such a change? First, we have to leave the past in the past. It is not as important to ask why we are facing the challenges we are or who or what is to blame as it is to consider how we can solve them and move forward.
Second, we need to leave rhetoric and ego at the door. Leadership, both public and private, has to restore bonds of trust and work collaboratively to develop focused, long-term sustainable actions and goals. This demands private-public partnerships. To do any less is to court failure and continued lack of trust across the private-public boundary. We will continue to muddle through aimlessly with ad hoc responses and face yet again rounds of revenue shortfalls and budget cuts.
Third, we need to recognize that moving the Maine economy forward in new directions will not be easy and that every step will not always yield success. We must be willing to accept failure and move on.
Fourth, we need to pull together legislators, executive branch members, business and community leaders and others to perform the necessary work and analysis in a nonpartisan manner. The membership of this group is absolutely critical and needs to reflect serious commitment at all levels and from all sectors. In addition, all members of this group must be willing to publicly and actively support the recommendations they develop.
Fifth, this group must identify the good and the bad of Maine as an economic location and be willing to prioritize what must change to improve our competitiveness in business attraction. Then the group can identify the characteristics of businesses that we would like to attract to Maine.
Finally, after all of this is done in a thoughtful manner, the selection of firms that the governor needs to approach is identified. Then the governor commits to this program of business and economic outreach.
The governor has an opportunity to provide an enduring legacy to the state for generations to come. However, he cannot do it alone, it requires ongoing legislative support that spans election cycles and the continuing actions and support of the business community to make this happen. “Yes we can” has become popularized of late, but it requires people to step forward and commit to action. The longer we wait, the more difficult the solution. Are we ready and can we change?
John F. Mahon is dean of the College of Business, Public Policy and Health at the University of Maine. He is also the John M. Murphy Chair of International Business Policy and Strategy and a professor of management.