Maine should borrow money if it helps businesses and nonprofit groups create new technology, grow jobs and jump-start more development. Research and development bond money — awarded competitively and with specific outcome guidelines — has shown it does just that.
The money helps improve the state’s long-term competitiveness by giving agencies the time and resources to innovate, whether it’s for Boothbay’s Biovation to speed up the commercialization of its wound-care products or for the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center to build and test offshore wind turbines.
Gov. Paul LePage wants the state to borrow and spend less — both fine goals — but merely deciding Maine ought to spend less without a job-creating capacity to do so is not helpful. In the case of a proposed $20 million R&D bond, the results of the spent money would be much greater than the original sum.
It’s good that he didn’t touch four other bond bills, but LePage acted shortsightedly in vetoing the R&D bond bill Friday. The Legislature should have greater sense and override the veto when it convenes Thursday.
After all, legislators previously reached a bipartisan agreement on the five bond proposals, totaling $96 million, for transportation projects, R&D, water and sewer infrastructure, higher education and the Land for Maine’s Future program. They would appear to be without principles if they changed their opinions to fall in line with LePage.
They should keep in mind that overriding the veto doesn’t necessarily mean the money for R&D — or any of the other projects — will be spent.
The borrowing proposals still need approval at the polls and then the public’s demand that the governor issue the bonds — as LePage has said he won’t issue any bonds until spending is “under control.” LePage perhaps should be more worried about the state’s ranking of 45th in 2010 for its technology and science work force, as technology-based growth drives economic success.
Legislators also should keep in mind the facts. In his veto message, LePage wrote that the majority of the R&D funds have gone to government programs and nonprofit groups in the past.
“Taxpayer dollars should go toward R&D only when we can demonstrate a specific return on that investment. That return must be measured in taxes and jobs. Both of those rightly come in the private sector,” he wrote.
He’s correct that the majority of recent R&D money has not gone to the private sector. Maine tends to send a greater percentage of R&D funding to universities and nonprofit research laboratories than the nation does.
That’s because the state has fewer large R&D intensive corporations, according to the Department of Economic and Community Development. In any event, the overall amount of R&D funding in Maine is so pathetically small — Maine universities rank 45th in R&D — that comparing Maine’s really tiny public sector R&D with its even tinier private sector R&D is largely besides the point.
It would be beneficial for more R&D funding to go to private companies, but that certainly won’t happen if there’s no R&D money to begin with. Maine spent half a century denying the need for R&D investment when other states invested heavily, and so it barely allowed for a private sector to grow here. And no agency exists in a vacuum; researchers at universities frequently create technologies or products that are used by private companies.
Still, regardless of whether the money is awarded to businesses or nonprofit groups, the agencies have demonstrated R&D’s worth. Of the $53 million approved for multiyear projects since 2007, about half that money was reimbursed as of June 2011, according to the Maine Technology Institute, which awards R&D grants through the Maine Technology Asset Fund.
In the same time frame, the Maine Technology Asset Fund reported that 12 new products or services were developed; 51 new patents or similar types of intellectual property protection were completed; 289 new jobs were created; and 303 existing jobs were preserved.
Many projects are just getting started and will continue to grow. In 2011, private companies receiving R&D money experienced an overall employment increase of 4.5 percent over the previous year.
LePage said he wants to create jobs. There they are.