EDITORIALS

Legislature’s bonds package to spur job growth shows political favoritism, prescriptiveness

Eric Zelz
Posted April 22, 2014, at 9:32 a.m.

Maine voters might have six more decisions to make when they visit the polls in November. As the Maine Legislature closed out its lawmaking session Thursday night, legislators gave their support to six borrowing initiatives totaling $50 million.

Now, the bonds must gain the support of Gov. Paul LePage or retain a veto-proof level of support among lawmakers in order to make it to voters.

The six proposed investments would each benefit the state in a distinct way — and Maine desperately needs the investment. But the borrowing package can be well characterized as one of missed opportunities, political favoritism and excessive prescriptiveness that could prevent the state from realizing the maximum return on its investment.

The problem lies in the fact that parts of the borrowing package that are supposedly aimed at encouraging research and development, innovation and commercialization — which the government has a critical role to play in encouraging — are so narrowly targeted that they could easily shut Maine off from investing in any number of innovative possibilities. The bonds were originally written to benefit one entity, and it shows.

Among the six bond issues is a $10 million item to “expand the State’s research capabilities in the areas of mammalian genetics and murine biometric analysis” and “make the State a global resource for precision medicine.”

The bond issue started off as a $15 million allocation specifically for The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, which has been planning to build a one-of-a-kind biometric analysis lab that uses cutting-edge technology to help researchers identify changes in individual mouse cells that signal the presence of disease.

Lawmakers were right to set up the final $10 million bond as one that designates the funds to be awarded through a competitive process. But the Legislature has created such a narrow competition with such a narrow goal in mind that it comes off as a competition set up specifically for The Jackson Laboratory. What other entity in Maine has such a strong specialty in anything murine-related? (And yes, that’s murine, as in mouse.)

Another $3 million of the $50 million would be spent “to modernize and expand infrastructure in a biological laboratory specializing in tissue repair and regeneration.” These funds, as well, would be awarded competitively, but the bond began as an allocation specifically for the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

The greatest disappointment is that the $50 million in bonds include no investment in the Maine Technology Asset Fund, which would have been a more worthy beneficiary of the $13 million in “competitively” awarded research bonds.

The Maine Technology Asset Fund has a rigorous, competitive process set up for awarding funds to businesses, research institutions and universities that have to prove the commercial potential of their innovations and their ability to raise funds from other sources. And by not defining criteria so narrowly — such as requesting proposals to build a biometric analysis facility — the fund doesn’t close itself off to the possibility that it could find a proposal the Legislature hasn’t that offers the state an even greater return on its investment of limited resources.

When the Legislature selects the winners from the start, it’s a better demonstration of which entities have the greatest political pull rather than which ones have the ideas that are most deserving of state support.

It’s been much too long since Maine saw a substantial investment in its research and development capacity, so the state would be missing an opportunity by rejecting these proposed investments.

Still, it’s disappointing to see the Legislature abandon a proven way of disbursing research and development dollars in a truly competitive fashion in favor of a process that inevitably defaults to political clout.

 

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