Business groups await LePage changes

Posted Nov. 05, 2010, at 11:07 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 06, 2010, at 4:43 p.m.

Political campaigns have hammered home the importance of jobs and the economy for the better part of a year.

With Republicans taking over the Legislature and governor’s office, business groups around the state are optimistic that the focus will remain on improving Maine’s economy in the next legislative session, and that reform in everything from the regulatory structure to tax policies is in the offing.

“It’s going to be a tidal wave of pro-business growth strategies that come forward in the administration’s budget,” said Christopher Hall, senior vice president for government affairs at the Portland Regional Chamber.

Governor-elect Paul LePage’s consistent message has been around getting the state’s fiscal house in order, cutting state spending while continuing prudent investment, said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

“When you look at what this campaign has been all about, what the focus has been, what Governor-elect LePage’s priorities have been, they’re clearly business issues,” said Connors, “and business issues are economic issues.”

Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Porter said he saw positive outcomes with LePage’s focus on taxes and regulatory reform.

“I have always said that the grand compromise for tax reform is to couple restructuring of the tax system with a genuine tax cut,” said Porter.

Restructuring is something Democrats have pursued, and a cut is something the Republicans want, said Porter. So a serious change in the tax system may be achievable.

Hall also saw cooperation between the two parties.

“A lot will depend on who’s leading the Democrats. I honestly think there are going to be some issues where there’s going to be lots of room for collaboration,” said Hall. “I don’t expect all of these issues to turn into policy fights.”

And as far as restructuring the regulatory system in the state, Porter said, businesses tend to be less concerned over how strict the regulations, as much as they are unhappy with how the regulations are applied on a case-by-case basis, lacking consistency. Hall suggested that the new administration will likely work to tune Maine’s regulations and rules to national norms, so they reflect what’s required in other states and at the federal level.

Hall said he also saw Augusta working to make health care costs more affordable by allowing businesses to purchase across state borders, adding competition to the marketplace.

Dan Bookham, executive director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, said the business community will need to assert itself, as well.

“We need to be more proactive in explaining the hopes of business in advance, rather than reacting to legislation,” said Bookham.

There’s already a good template for what’s needed in the Making Maine Work report, put out recently by the state chamber and the Maine Development Foundation, Bookham noted.

Bookham said he believed the report appropriately stressed the importance of the “Maine Brand,” which revolves around quality of place, quality of people and quality of product. And economic recovery can be based around those concepts, he said.

Hall and Connor agreed that the business community will need to step up its game, as well. As government acts to make changes, industry can’t lag in its response, they said.

“You need government that encourages and enables investment to take place. The private sector needs to invest,” said Connors. “Jobs get created, revenue gets created – and we’re on our way.”

If government reforms give business some breathing room, industry needs to respond by creating entry level jobs, said Hall.

“If Paul LePage’s welfare system works, the private sector has to have a place for folks to go (to work),” he said.

Porter said he hoped LePage surrounds himself with smart experts who not only share his vision for state government, but also understands how the system works, and what needs to be preserved. And the administration and Legislature needs to understand that government must make investments, as well, said Porter.

“In their zeal to reduce the scope and size of state government, are they going to make the appropriate investments that are really needed to move us forward?” said Porter. “When you promise a smaller government with a government that’s already $800 million in the hole, can you make the investments?”

That would include improving access to higher education, while making it more affordable. And the state must invest in transportation infrastructure, and in data connectivity and broadband, Porter said.

Not every business-related group in the state was optimistic, however. Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said his group was “concerned about the results of the election.”

“I think now more than ever in this economy we need policies that strengthen worker’s rights, that help people on pocketbook issues,” said Schlobohm.

The group is concerned around appointments LePage might make, and how those people will impact policies of importance to working men and women, said Schlobohm. The labor union is going over its legislative goals for 2011, he said. One issue was to try to apply prevailing wage laws to public school construction, so that construction workers on those projects are guaranteed a certain pay level for work done with public money.

The group has 30,000 active members in Maine, he said, and that doesn’t include teachers and state workers, who are in different unions. Scholobohm said his group would like to play “a constructive” role in the new government, but was concerned their place in the process may be diminished in a Republican-led Statehouse.

“We firmly believe that if you want the best policy outcomes that benefit everyone, the perspective of workers needs to be at the table,” said Schlobohm. “We’ll see. We have concerns about whether doors will be open, whether that voice and perspective will be given the ample space it deserves.”

Hall said he has talked to a number of Republican leaders in recent months, and they are all focused on the economy. None of them talked about any social issues being on the agenda, Hall said.

Hall also noted that the shift in government from blue to red also served as a message – not only to businesses in Maine, but to those outside the state, as well.

“We just sent out a really different signal. If you are in charge of making corporate investments anywhere in the world, you just saw a state you may have mentally written off the list and think ‘They have brand new leadership, and they have plans to grow the economy. Maybe I’ll take a look…’” said Hall.

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