Making Maine Work

Posted July 20, 2010, at 7:19 p.m.

When it comes to ideas for improving the economy, a new report from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Maine Development Foundation is a good guide for debate among the state’s gubernatorial and legislative candidates. The difficulty is turning the report’s good ideas — ensuring Maine negotiates favorable electric rates for local businesses and that the state government use its buying power to reduce health care costs, for example — into action.

“Making Maine Work” is the result of surveys and interviews with more than 1,000 employers across the state. As such, it provides a useful list of business’s top concerns, coupled with ideas for addressing them.

Topping the list is health care costs, with more than 80 percent of the employers surveyed saying the cost of health insurance had a negative impact on their business.

Maine’s per capita health care spending is nearly 25 percent higher than the national average and ranks second highest among the states.

To address this, the report says the next governor should convene a panel to hold the line on health care cost increases. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but reducing costs is an integral part of the much-maligned Dirigo Health program, which many lawmakers say needs to be killed.

Toward this end, Laurie Lachance, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, says the most important message is that Maine policymakers must agree on a vision for the state’s future. Every policy decision should then be measured against that vision.

Currently, lawmakers agree to a plan only to move in a different direction in a year or two or approve new initiatives that work against the original plan. Another problem is that promising programs are started but not funded or funded inadequately.

A common problem is spreading money too thin. For example, when the state created technology incubators, it had funding for two. Rather than offend industries that would be left out, seven incubators were created in seven different locations with little regard to the knowledge base and skills of the workers in those areas. The incubators are getting by, but concentrating the funding in two of them would have produced better results.

This example can be instructive in evaluating candidates for the Blaine House and State House. Be wary of those who say that money should be spread around the state and economic development will follow. Pay close attention to those who have plans for strategic investment in a couple areas and aren’t afraid to say “No” to others.

The rest of “Making Maine Work” will sound familiar — support energy efficiency and promote a liquefied natural gas terminal in Washington County to lower energy costs; reduce income and property taxes; change the regulatory culture to emphasize consistency and business assistance rather than hindrance; develop a better system of funding transportation projects.

But, it is the timing and tone of the report, more than its specifics, that should get keep it at the center of debate over Maine’s future.

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