BANGOR, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said he plans to submit a number of bills in January to deal with issues he’s hearing about from employers around the state, including legislation aimed at unemployment insurance.
Speaking at his second of three jobs workshops, LePage on Wednesday said a number of businesses have told him their biggest competition for workers is the unemployment insurance program.
“We have got to convince those who can work that we need to get them back to work,” said LePage. “Quite frankly, I think that might be a sign that we’re paying them a bit too much when they’re at home not working.”
LePage said he would want to see if there are enough incentives to get people who have lost their jobs off unemployment and back to work as well as whether the funds paid to unemployed people should be reduced.
Another issue that came up at the Bangor session was frustration on the part of business owners regarding inconsistency in regulations among different communities.
“There is as much frustration with local government and the inconsistencies [from] city to city, town to town — maybe even more — as there is with state government,” said John Porter, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.
Porter said the issue came up in one of the sessions with businesses the governor held Wednesday that was closed to the media.
“Given our culture of local control, I think that’s a huge challenge,” said Porter.
In an interview with the Bangor Daily News, LePage acknowledged it was a hot-button issue with businesses and said he was looking at a legislative solution there, too.
“I’m a big believer in trying to get the state regulations no stricter than federal, and we’re trying to encourage the local communities to work with us to make their rules no stricter [than either],” said LePage.
He said he planned to submit a bill that would allow the state to cut back on revenues to communities that don’t adjust their regulations to match the state’s.
“If you will not cooperate with the state, [if you are] stricter on regulations, then you lose revenue sharing,” said LePage. “Obviously, you don’t need the revenue.
“It’s important they all get on the same page.”
He noted that when he ran the Marden’s chain, he found some communities were harder to deal with.
“If I had to do it over, there’s a couple of towns I wouldn’t go back to,” he said.
Wednesday’s conference follows one held last week in South Portland. The final one is planned for Auburn in mid-November. At each conference, about 150 invited businesspeople meet with the governor in small groups to discuss problems they have with state government. Those meetings are closed to the media, according to a LePage spokesperson, because the governor wants the businesses to speak frankly. The workshops also feature high-ranking Cabinet members.
On Wednesday, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais, Professional and Financial Regulation Commissioner Anne Head and other senior managers were on hand to chat with businesspeople.
Each department in state government now has a business liaison, someone whose job is to help businesses get answers they need from that department. The idea, said LePage’s senior economic adviser, John Butera, is to let the businesspeople focus on their companies, not on working through the state bureaucracy. Similarly, there are now “account executives” in the Department of Economic and Community Development whose job is to help businesses grow.
Beyond that, LePage said, those positions are in place so the state can react quickly if a business wants to start or relocate in Maine.
“It is critical that when somebody thinks of us, I want some action — we want to get at it and go,” said LePage.
But the state also has systemic problems that need to be solved. The top concerns remain energy costs (Maine’s are the lowest in New England, 12th highest in the nation), work force training and regulations, he said.
“It’s one thing to say you’re open for business, but until your energy costs come down, are you really open?” LePage said.
LePage, Butera and Kenneth Fletcher, head of the governor’s Office of Energy Independence, are heading to Quebec this week to meet with provincial and business leaders there. One big topic of conversation will be energy, said LePage. Another topic, he said, will be better road connections to and through Maine.
As in the last workshop, a prime issue for businesses attending on Wednesday was the need for a skilled work force.
Douglas Cyr, human resources director for Irving Woodlands in Fort Kent, said he’s having trouble getting contractors with the skills to use the high-tech timber harvesters and forwarders. One vocational high school in southern Aroostook County has a curriculum and the equipment needed but it only graduated a dozen students with the training last year. Next year, he said, the company will need from 16 to 18 workers with those skills.
Last year, the company ran a training course, teaching 14 new operators at a cost of about $400,000, he said, which included equipment rental and other costs.
Bridgett Ireland, director of human resources at the Charlotte White Center in Dover-Foxcroft, said a local high school vocational school has a medical tract, but doesn’t do any work with mental health training. That would help her nonprofit group, she said, which at 476 people is the second-largest employer headquartered in Piscataquis County. It also could help young people in the area with a career path, she said.
The center helps people with disabilities. To supplement its funding as resources have diminished, the center has started a number of enterprises including a weatherization and home energy auditing business, a Christmas tree farm and a greenhouse and garden.
Alan Smith, owner of Fastco Corp. in Lincoln, said he employs 75 people at his metal fabrication shop and construction business. He said he is seeing less-skilled students coming out of the community college system.
“They can write an essay on it, but they can’t weld,” he said.