Things are pretty grim here in Washington County.
We have the dubious distinction of being the poorest county in the state, with the highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line (19.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) and the highest percentage of residents receiving some type of state assistance (46.9 percent, according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center), whether it’s Medicaid, food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
We find ourselves in a pit of economic depression where we are lacking freedom and prosperity. Productive, thriving businesses that are built by or offer employment for Mainers are scarce. Here in Washington County, and in much of Maine, there is little hope for a bright future for young people such as me. Maine’s economic development policies are failing, particularly in this county. Something needs to change.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center has introduced an initiative called FreeME, which proposes to increase economic prosperity and reduce government dependency in Maine, county by county.
The initiative starts right here in economically distressed Washington County. Over time, the policy could inspire innovation, new jobs and businesses. It is an economic development plan that would eliminate personal and corporate income and sales tax, bringing tax relief to the areas of Maine that need it most while minimizing disruption to the state budget. As people create businesses and businesses hire employees, government dependency will be reduced, and eventually, our state’s welfare spending will plummet, saving Maine precious taxpayer dollars. Because of the reduction of taxes, FreeME would put out the welcome mat for business, making Maine attractive, competitive and business-friendly.
In Washington County, our population is declining, with deaths outnumbering births. Free ME could bring individuals and families to Washington County to repopulate the area as more businesses and opportunities are created. The initiative would make it possible for young people and families to stay here to build lives for themselves.
The FreeME initiative is not a new concept. It follows the same economic philosophy of Maine’s Pine Tree Development Zone program enacted by former Gov. John Baldacci. The problem is that the Pine Tree Development Zone program does not have enough of a positive economic effect.
In 2012, 48 businesses asked to be removed from the program; they were seeing little to no benefit. In order to qualify for the Pine Tree Development Zone benefits, a business must expand and hire at least one new employee. Because of this, the program has not offered much help to rural Maine where businesses are struggling to just keep their employees. Unlike the Pine Tree Development Zone program, which picks qualified businesses for special tax treatment, FreeME would benefit all businesses and individuals, too.
States such as Texas and Florida have enacted Enterprise Zone programs that offer tax incentives for businesses investing in certain areas and have seen impressive results, attracting thousands of businesses and creating new jobs.
Outside of the U.S., India has also put in place programs similar to FreeME and has seen phenomenal economic growth and an increase in jobs. In India, Special Economic Zones had created 840,000 jobs by 2010-11 since the law creating them took effect in 2006.
Imagine if those positive effects took hold in Washington County, and eventually all of Maine, as a result of Free ME.
It is time that we in Washington County stopped wallowing in our poverty and started trying to find new ways to get ourselves up out of the pit in which we find ourselves. We must be open to new ideas and new methods. We all want things to change and get better, but we have to be willing to change and better ourselves, even when it may hurt a little or even a lot.
We have an abundance of natural resources. There are a lot of things that we overlook because we are busy lamenting our poverty and the things we don’t have. From thriving forests to the blueberry and fishing industries, and the deepest natural harbor in the continental United States, Washington County is equipped with its own anti-poverty programs. We just need to take advantage of them.
The Free ME initiative can help us do just that. Over time, this plan can put Maine back on the path to freedom and prosperity and build a future for young people like me.
Mariah Curtis is an 18-year-old home-schooled senior living in Pembroke. She has an avid interest in politics and aspires to be a writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.