The minimum wage, workforce development and a round-up of statehouse and Portland news

Posted April 01, 2013, at 11:14 a.m.
Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber
Courtesy/Portland Regional Chamber
Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber

With the state house hitting high gear there are many, many things to keep track of, including these issues which directly impact our region along with the rest of the state:

  • Workforce development – The Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future has a draft bill that continues to grow in size, with many good ideas in it, but the bill’s price tag is also growing and there’s no clear way to pay for it yet. See Matt Stone’s article just below for more.
  • Charter schools – Bills this week seek to limit their growth, but the challenges to public schools posed by expanding educational choices at every level won’t go away. The best response, making all our schools more competitive, runs straight into scarce funding because of the next challenge, which is;
  • The next 2-year state budget is in flux – and there’s no easy way to avoid the Governor’s proposed cuts, including suspension of municipal revenue sharing together with other state spending reductions which push service costs onto the property tax. Should we raise taxes, as many suggest? Or seek additional savings? See Scott Thistle’s article in the Budget section below for more; and
  • Minimum wage increases – passed by the House and pending a vote in the Senate. Many small businesses feel like they’re not being heard when they say that they can’t afford to raise hourly pay. The effort to help low wage earners is a sincere one, but the labor market can’t be legislated without triggering unforeseen, and unwanted, consequences. See the Labor section below for more.

Any way you look at it, hard choices lie ahead. The best thing you can do is get involved.

Your legislators will be voting soon on all these policy choices and many other issues detailed below. Use our links to make sure they know what you think before their votes make changes that impact you, your company and your community.

Notable Read: Some days there’s just too much to read. If you only have time for one thing:

This year we’ve been talking a lot about the skills gap – the legislature has a Joint Select Committee working on the problem and many employers are working on their own solutions, like Project Login.

Matthew Stone wrote an analysis of what’s happening – and what our economy needs – in the BDN last week. You may be surprised to learn how much further we have to go.

Spotlight Legislation: With lawmakers in high gear the state house has almost 250 public hearings and work sessions scheduled in the next 5 days – if you’d like to check the list (which changes constantly) click here and enter the date range for this week.

Among the highlights are public hearings on Monday on several bill in the Taxation Committee that would allow municipalities to expand their property tax base to include non-profits ( see list of bills here – scroll down), and several bills in the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee limiting charter schools ( see bill list here – scroll down, and read PPH coverage).

Looming over all the other work going on in the state house is the continuing effort to build a 2-year state budget. Committees of jurisdiction are working to report back to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which is pushing for its own bipartisan budget deal sometime in the coming weeks.

In the State House: Charter schools were in the news a lot last week. The Governor proposed creating a legal defense fund for the Maine Charter School Commission ( PPH, MPBN).

The Baxter School’s troubles led to questions from the Charter School Commission ( PPH, BDN, MPBN) and a request by Mayor Brennan for an Attorney General’s investigation ( PPH, BDN). The AG declined, but the legislature’s Governmental Oversight Committee may take up an inquiry ( BDN, PPH). Jonathan Amory wrote in support of Baxter Academy. Today’s public hearings on bills limiting charter schools are sure to generate more debate (see above).

Maine got a C- grade for transparency from a national watchdog group ( PPH, BDN). Mike Cuzzi looked at the reasons behind the Governor’s shifting positions on borrowing and Medicaid expansion.

State Policy round-up:

  • Ballot watch: Alison Smith wrote about the future of the Maine Clean Elections Act.
  • Bonds: The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee may toss out both bills dealing with hospital repayment via a bond supported by a contract for the state’s liquor contract – and write its own bill ( PPH). The BDN editors liked the approach, but warned against up-front fees in any agreement.
  • Budget: Scott Thistle in the LSJ gave a good assessment of where things stand on the two-year state budget. Mike Tipping assessed the competing political strategies surrounding the budget and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said his city could not afford the Governor’s budget. The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee held an extraordinary public hearing on the budget in Brewer ( BDN). Click here for the March edition of Fiscal News, with all the detail on the state budget, revenues and related information.
  • Economic Development: J. Scott Moody compared Maine and New Hampshire’s personal income levels. Alan Caron shared his vision of new development based on small business investments and big innovations. Downtown development is once again a hot topic in planning circles ( PPH).
  • Education: The PPH editors characterized the Governor’s Education Summit last week as a ‘declaration of war’ against public schools as we know them. Greg Kesich discussed MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, as the next disruptive innovation facing higher education.
  • Energy: Republican House Leader Ken Fredette has proposed a new state agency to advance the expansion of natural gas in Maine ( PPH). Efficiency Maine won approval for its new 3-year plan ( MPBN). Rural opponents of mountain-top wind projects turned out in force to roll back existing state law ( BDN).
  • Environment: A bill to advance working waterfront development remained a hot topic in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee ( PPH). The newly composed Land Use Regulatory Commission is in need of new members ( BDN). The PPH’s Tux Turkel looked at Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s history and place today in the unfolding tar sands oil debate – the company has an outstanding safety record ( PPH), while opponents fear spills and smokestacks ( PPH). State lawmakers may place limits on ethanol in motor fuel ( PPH).
  • Health Care: The Maine Hospital Association joined the ranks of those supporting Medicaid expansion in Maine ( PPH, BDN). Trish Reilly and Rep. Ann Dorney each wrote in support as well. Jackie Farwell at the BDN examined hospital finances in light of state MaineCare repayment delays.
  • Labor: The Maine House of Representatives lost no time passing a minimum wage hike almost exclusively along party lines ( PPH, BDN, LSJ, MPBN). Supporters included many potential gubernatorial candidates ( PPH), along with the PPH editors. WGAN interviewed sponsor Rep. Scott Hamann, opponent Rep. Amy Volk and Eliot Cutler, who took a ‘still listening’ approach. The Maine Senate is expected to take up the minimum wage bill ( LD 611) sometime this week. If you haven’t contacted your lawmakers yet, and you have an opinion, do so today.
  • Tax: Efforts to make aviation sales exempt from sales tax are advancing ( PPH).
  • Transportation: The bill allowing increased speeds on part of I-295 continued to progress ( BDN). Lindsay Newland Bowker spoke against privatization of transportation infrastructure.
  • Welfare reform: The PPH editors said poverty, not fraud, is the central cost driver in welfare programs. Homeless shelters face increasing usage and flat funding ( BDN).
  • Around the Region:Leslie Bridgers in the PPH wrote about how immigration is re-shaping the entire Portland region, and not just the City.
  • Eimskip’s next ship arrived in Portland over the weekend – the company is a new gateway for exporters to Canada and Europe, and small businesses in the region and around the state have a chance to grow as a result ( PPH).
  • Renovations at the Cumberland County Civic Center might face delays ( PPH). Elsewhere:
  • In Cumberland the Council supported Alyssa Tibbitts’ promotion to Assistant Town Manager, along with the municipal budget and the natural gas pipeline MOU ( Forecaster).
  • In Gorham the municipal and school budgets may add up to a tax increase ( Current). A plan to provide all-day kindergarten was found to be too expensive for immediate implementation ( PPH).
  • In Portland the City Manager released a consultant’s study of the Portland Fire Department ( PPH, BDN, PDS) – the City Council had questions ( PPH). Elsewhere:
    • Councilor John Anton announced he would not run for re-election ( PPH);
    • Portland’s proposed municipal budget could increase property taxes ( PPH);
    • Education Commissioner Steven Bowen visited Portland schools and praised their innovation ( BDN);
    • City and state officials held a press conference to discuss the Baxter Boulevard stormwater project ( PPH, Forecaster);
    • The PPH editors applauded the Planning Board’s approval of new height standards for the Bayside ‘Midtown’ project; and
    • For the latest check out Chris O’Neil’s Inside City Hall. Chris serves as a consultant to the Portland Community Chamber, working closely with members and staff to represent the Chamber before Portland City officials. Inside City Hall covers a host of Portland related issues. It’s something that everyone with an interest in Portland affairs will want to read.
  • In South Portland the Council set its Capital Improvements budget at $3.6 million ( Forecaster).
  • In Westbrook the municipal budget may feature service cuts and tax increases ( Current).

Contact your local officials: Visit our website to find links to all your municipal and state house officials. Remember – if you don’t speak out, the people who represent you have no way to know what you think. So keep those email, calls and visits coming.

Digging Deeper at the State House: Most of you probably don’t want to find daily schedules at the state house, research copies of every piece of testimony submitted at every public hearing, track the status of a particular bill, find contact info for Committees, or House members, or Senators, or listen to public hearings on the computer, or watch selected state house proceedings on MPBN’s Capitol Connection. But if you do, just follow the links. The state house is increasingly accessible to the public, at least to those who put in a little work.

Back issues: Miss a Policy Update? Want to find that story or link that you lost track of? Just click here for recent back issues ofPolicy Update.

Feedback: What do you think? We’d love to have your thoughts on anything you’ve read here, or other topics that are important to you. The more you talk to us, the better we’ll represent your views. Send an email to share your feedback with me – and thank you!

Partners for Progress Policy Updates from the Portland Regional Chamber are supported by generous contributions from our Partners for Progress. For more information about joining the Portland Regional Chamber just click here.

 

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