Votes are tallied, but uncertainties for business community remain

Charlie Huntington, owner of I&S Insulation, worries the Democratic takeover of the Maine Legislature may have a negative effect on businesses.
Charlie Huntington, owner of I&S Insulation, worries the Democratic takeover of the Maine Legislature may have a negative effect on businesses. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 07, 2012, at 6:51 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 07, 2012, at 10:43 p.m.

While who actually occupies the White House may not have a big effect on the individual decisions of Maine business owners, the overall tone of Washington does affect the broader business community, according to Matt Jacobson, executive vice president at Oxford Networks and a former Republican gubernatorial candidate.

“To me the issue is uncertainty,” Jacobson said.

Several major policy issues — the most pressing being sequestration, otherwise known as the “fiscal cliff,” which includes across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases that many say will tip the country back into recession — now face lawmakers in Washington and could have an effect on the country’s economy.

“I’m not sure we got much clarity [on those issues], and as businesses, for better or worse, we want to know what’s going to happen so we can make choices,” Jacobson said.

“Uncertainty can be crippling,” said Dana Connors, CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Business and consumer confidence has been an issue for the past few years. That confidence will manifest itself if lawmakers can get over their differences and make compromises, Connors said.

He’s optimistic. “In the next few weeks coming out of this election if both parties come together and treat the fiscal issue, particularly the fiscal cliff, with the seriousness we all know it [deserves], it will go far in giving the business community the assurance they need that feeds into confidence.”

One thing that is fairly certain with the re-election of Barack Obama is that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay.

There were likely businesses waiting in the wings to see if Mitt Romney would be elected with a mandate to repeal the health care law that’s become known as Obamacare, Connors said. But now it’s time to move forward, he said.

The law is not perfect and it will be up to lawmakers to work together to tailor the law so it addresses its original goals of improving the cost of and access to health care, Connors said.

“Health care costs continue to be a challenge for us and divisiveness around the Affordable Care Act is clear,” he said. “It isn’t perfect in form but it’s here and we need to make the most of it.”

State politics is another matter.

Charlie Huntington, owner of I&S Insulation in Wiscasset and past president of the Maine Builders and Contractors Alliance, said who occupies the White House doesn’t affect his day-to-day business decisions, but he did closely watch the state legislative races. While there are no major business issues he’s worried about getting stalled in Augusta because of the new political reality, he is concerned that with Democrats in power the tone taken with businesses could turn negative.

He already finds most state agencies to be “liberal leaning” and confrontational with business owners, especially in areas such as employment. He used a recent example to illustrate his point: An employee Huntington fired for being unproductive and uncooperative went to the state and claimed he had been laid off and eligible for unemployment benefits. The state sided with the employee, who is collecting unemployment.

“You run a business and you’re following a lot of laws and regulations and paying a lot of taxes. You’re doing all you should be doing,” Huntington said. “You have employees that come and go and when [an issue such as that occurs] business owners are treated like criminals out of the box. With more Democratic control, I’m concerned that attitude could continue at the state level.”

When it comes to policy issues at the state level, there are things that are certain and others that are less so.

On the one hand, here’s a certainty: The Democrats taking control of both the House and the Senate while a Republican sits in the Blaine House means no radical agendas are going to be pursued successfully, Jacobson said. “It doesn’t seem like that’s a recipe for bold innovation,” he said.

On the other hand, it’s uncertain whether the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage will be able to work together to accomplish the things that need to get done. “The stalemate that could exist is a real concern and possibility,” Connors said.

Chris Hall, senior vice president of government relations at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, puts it another way: “There’s certainty that there are immediate challenges that require collaboration in order to be solved. The uncertainty is if everybody is up for that.”

One of the issues that may come up is the reduction of the personal income tax enacted in the last budget, which the business community supported. The tax cut was passed on a bipartisan basis, but over the last several months, as election fever took over, the issue has become contentious, Hall said. Democrats may want to attempt to repeal those cuts, he said.

Education reform, transportation, health care. They are all issues that will generate spirited conversation. “But these are important things they need to work together on,” he said. “They are places where [lawmakers] could succeed the greatest or possibly have their biggest problems.”

Hall is optimistic the state’s lawmakers will be willing to compromise on the issues facing the state, especially since voters will be judging them on whether they can get things done.

“We get to certainty by seeing that our government is working together to solve economic problems,” he said.

Those economic problems — despite the headlines, party politics and partisan gridlock — are the same today as they were yesterday. They are the same ones “that challenge us as a people,” Connors said. “The way you accomplish them is not drawing a line in the sand; it’s by erasing that line and working together.”

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