Baldacci says plan would help lift state from recession

Posted March 10, 2009, at 9:45 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci outlined on Tuesday an ambitious plan to help lift Maine out of the current recession by investing in energy and health care while continuing to streamline state government.

In a speech to a joint session of the Legislature, Baldacci acknowledged the tough economic conditions that have left thousands of Mainers jobless and forced lawmakers to pare down government at a time when many are seeking more state support.

But the speech was also lofty and optimistic as the governor described Maine as well positioned to emerge from the recession stronger because of its abundant natural resources and hardworking people.

“The dawn of a new economic day in Maine is not here yet, but it is coming,” Baldacci said in his annual State of the State address. “We know the direction to look because the sun rises first in Maine. We have a plan. There is a path to take. We know what we must do.”

The governor unveiled a number of new initiatives in his roughly 40-minute speech, including:

ä Weatherizing all Maine homes and half of the state’s businesses in 20 years.

ä Earmarking $3.5 million in federal stimulus money to launch two new medical schools: one at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor through a partnership with the University of Vermont and the University of Maine, and the other at Portland’s Maine Medical Center with Tufts University. Neither program would require new buildings but instead would provide scholarships to Maine residents.

ä Using stimulus money to create vouchers for laid-off workers in need of health insurance.

ä Exploring using highway corridors for new electricity transmission lines to minimize impacts on people and the environment.

“Transportation corridors will become commerce corridors,” he said.

Roughly half of the governor’s speech focused on energy, an area the governor said has the potential to create thousands of jobs.

Baldacci announced that banks and credit unions would work with the state to offer up to $100 million in private capital for home and business weatherization.

He said projects to improve Maine’s electricity transmission infrastructure — including connecting northern Maine to the New England grid — need to move forward. At the same time, the state is talking to Canadian officials about a second energy corridor between Maine and New Brunswick, he said.

But Baldacci also sent a message to his Canadian counterparts who have threatened to block liquefied natural gas tankers from accessing terminals proposed for Washington County.

“LNG has an important role to play as Maine transitions from oil to renewables and the proposed terminals in Washington County give economic hope to a region that needs new industry,” he said.

Other highlights of the governor’s speech included proposals to pay off debts to hospitals and to create a new wellness program to help people reduce health risks.

But while the governor said the time was right to use federal stimulus money and new bonds to invest in projects, he added that the state should not take its eye off trimming spending.

“Whether it’s by combining state agencies, eliminating unnecessary regulations or holding the line on taxes, we must maintain our fiscal vigilance and question the way every tax dollar is spent,” he said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the speech struck an appropriate balance.

Rep. John Piotti, a Unity Democrat and the House majority leader, said he appreciated the governor’s comments that economic development and preserving Maine’s “quality of place” need not compete.

“I thought the governor did a great job of setting the framework,” Piotti said. “Obviously, we have some tough economic times but there are also opportunities.”

House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, described the speech as forward-looking and the focus on opportunities in the energy sector as consistent with lawmakers’ priorities. Pingree also appreciated the governor’s reflections on past recessions.

“It reminds us that Mainers have been through tough times and they have found a way to get through and rebuild the economy,” Pingree said.

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, agreed with the governor’s statements that Maine needs to change its approach on energy issues. He was also pleased to hear the comments on locating new transmission lines along Maine’s highways, an idea that Fitts credited to Cianbro president Peter Vigue.

Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, described the speech as setting a “positive theme” and welcomed Baldacci’s comments on LNG as well as his pledge to use federal stimulus money to expand benefits for laid-off workers. But Raye said any initiatives using federal stimulus dollars cannot come with future funding obligations.

“We have to look very carefully that we are using those funds wisely and not setting ourselves up for a cliff in the future when they are gone,” Raye said.

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