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Penalizing call centers won’t protect Maine jobs — it’ll ensure no new call center jobs come to Maine

Dave Eckert, an ergonomic and safety specialist with L.L. Bean, works to set up the L.L. Bean call center on Godfrey Boulevard near the Bangor International Airport in this Aug. 26, 2005, file photo.
Bob DeLong | BDN
Dave Eckert, an ergonomic and safety specialist with L.L. Bean, works to set up the L.L. Bean call center on Godfrey Boulevard near the Bangor International Airport in this Aug. 26, 2005, file photo. Buy Photo
Posted April 15, 2014, at 11:49 a.m.

In her April 13 BDN OpEd, Krista Jensen argues that a bill before the Legislature will help keep companies that use state-provided investment dollars accountable by subjecting them to a series of economic punishments should they relocate beyond the United States.

The bill, LD 1710, An Act to Retain Call Centers in Maine, might well do just that, but only by applying a “Hotel California” method of business retention — in other words, you can check in, but you can never leave.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce has strongly opposed this bill since its introduction. Our opposition is about much more than the “clawbacks” in the bill, or the barring of access to investment incentives, or the “wall of shame” approach the bill uses to label companies that may leave based on decisions over which they have no control, or the fact that no other state in the country imposes such sanctions on their employers. Our opposition is based on the terrible message this bill sends to businesses — potential employers that are outside of the state of Maine regarding our business attractiveness.

This bill culls “call centers” from the rest of the business community So why should other employers care? You need only look to Jensen’s own words to see the handwriting on the wall. In speaking to the need for the bill in Maine absent similar national legislation, she says its passage “starts with Maine call center workers.” In other words, someone else is next.

Today, this bill targets call centers, tomorrow it might be paper mills, or maybe tech companies, or any business of any size that uses the meager investment tools our state offers. Put succinctly, imposing penalties and “clawback” provisions envisioned in this bill ask a company, regardless of whether it is a call center or another type of employers, for a guarantee that it will never leave. No company in Maine, or anywhere else, can make that kind of guarantee.

So, if the object of the bill is to limit participation in these development partnerships to certain employers, by holding repayment of incentives and investment dollars over their heads as a threat, that’s a class of zero companies. Punishing businesses of any type for factors beyond their control — such as diminishing markets or global competition — makes a bad situation worse.

Passage of LD 1710 won’t convince a company to remain here. They will consider leaving now, before the law takes effect. And forget about ever seeing any call center ever locate here in Maine. LD 1710 incentivizes just the opposite. Why would any business of this type come here knowing the consequences should things not work out? Is that the message that the Maine Legislature really wants broadcast across the country — at the very moment when our state is fighting to attract new jobs, new investments and new opportunities for our people?

That is precisely the message that LD 1710 conveys inside and outside of our state. The closing or relocation of any type of business, in any area of our state, is never a good thing. Jobs are lost, people are unemployed — the entire local economy suffers. Will penalizing that individual company, or a class of companies, make those jobs come back? No. And, passage of such a law won’t make them come here either. LD 1710 adds, justifiably so, to the already notorious perception that Maine is not a business-friendly state. It will hurt our ability to attract future call center endeavors and hurt our overall business attractiveness.

We all want more job opportunities and a stronger economy for our state. Those things happen when businesses are confident they can operate in a welcoming environment. We can help achieve this goal by making sure employers that take the risk of doing business here know they have a fair and reasonable regulatory environment in which to conduct business, and they won’t be unreasonably punished for factors beyond their control if things don’t work out. The “call center” bill is anything but welcoming. In fact, it diminishes the likelihood that, in Jensen’s words, more “good, middle class jobs like mine” will come to Maine, be they call center jobs or some other type.

Peter Gore is vice president of governmental relations for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

 

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