December 12, 2018
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How Maine’s gubernatorial candidates would manage the economy

Troy R. Bennett and Gabor Degre | BDN
Troy R. Bennett and Gabor Degre | BDN
Gubernatorial candidates, clockwise from upper left: Terry Hayes, Alan Caron, Janet Mills and Shawn Moody.

AUBURN, Maine — Maine’s four gubernatorial candidates have released their rough economic roadmaps, with Republican Shawn Moody targeting “red tape” and Democrat Janet Mills leaning on a battery of grant and loan programs.

They are the frontrunners in the race to replace Gov. Paul LePage in the Nov. 6 election, but they’re running alongside two independents — State Treasurer Terry Hayes and consultant Alan Caron. The winner will take over a state facing plenty of economic hurdles, though the unemployment rate is on a record-low stretch, staying around 3 percent this year.

In August, the Maine Department of Labor forecast that the state would add fewer than 100 new jobs between 2016 and 2026. Over that period, it said the oldest state in the nation by median age would shed 22 percent of workers in their prime years — between ages 45 and 54.

The competing plans are often vague but fit the candidates. Moody, who founded a chain of collision centers, wants to streamline permitting and tighten spending. Mills, the attorney general, is heavier on grant, loan and financing targeted toward specific goals.

Hayes’ outline is vaguer and heavy on promises to build consensus among different constituencies. Caron — who has run nonprofits focused on growing Maine’s economy — incorporates ideas from across the political spectrum.

Here’s how they compare and where they fit in Maine’s current political environment. None of the candidates will be able to do all they want, but the plans show their priorities.

Moody’s outline includes streamlining business permitting and government, but many of the suggestions are in progress or have been tried in various ways. He rolled out his mostly thematic four-page plan on Thursday that outlines broad goals, but is sometimes light on ways to accomplish the biggest ones. For businesses, he would reduce “red tape” and give them one point of contact to negotiate interdepartmental concerns. He also wants to institute performance measures to ensure that public money is used effectively.

Many of these ideas have also been tried by other governors. For example, Moody wants to “incentivize regionalization of local municipal services” — something many in state government have long wanted. That idea hasn’t made it far in a state that closely guards local control.

Former Gov. John Baldacci’s 2007 school consolidation plan reduced Maine’s number of school districts from 290 to 160 with some success, but it largely created conflict between cities and towns, and many have moved to go it alone or in smaller groups. LePage, a Republican, has tried a less controversial and less sweeping approach by backing specific consolidation projects.

It appears that Moody would continue tightening welfare programs, a defining item in LePage’s legacy. Moody’s plan calls for those receiving government-funded health care to “contribute something toward their own care” if able, an apparent reference to Medicaid premiums that the governor wants the federal government to approve and would likely reduce program rolls.

Mills’ plan is less sweeping but more specific. The Democrat’s plan is tailored to her goals for the first year in office. It is more targeted than Moody’s outline, though it relies heavily on new grant and loan programs with government streamlining efforts mixed into it.

Those new initiatives include combining 15 agencies responsible for fragments of the state’s economic development picture into one Maine Growth Authority and elevating the governor’s energy office to a Cabinet-level department — something Republicans have wanted during LePage’s tenure — that would include the independent public advocate’s office.

Mills and the independents would obey a 2017 referendum to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to an estimated 70,000 Mainers. That’s held up in a court battle between advocates and the governor’s administration. In April, Mills suggested funding the law at first with tobacco settlement money, but a legislative funding plan died after a LePage veto this year.

Her several grant and financing plans include giving short-term, no interest loans to small businesses to finance the addition of new employees and help rural towns create spaces for remote workers and preserve rural landmarks.

She also wants to create rural broadband expansion districts and prioritize them for grants through the ConnectME Authority. It’s unclear how much of a dent it would make. Maine’s former public advocate said in 2017 that the $875,000 available per year to fund infrastructure grants made it “largely irrelevant in most efforts to build networks at scale in the state.”

Hayes’ plan is the lightest on detail and heavy on promises to build consensus. Hayes hasn’t released a pointed plan like her opponents, but her website makes several suggestions, including a state Office of Workforce Development that would manage partnerships between educational institutions and businesses.

She also wants to embrace recommendations made in a report earlier this year from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and other groups. Those recommendations include developing one state economic development strategy and committing $100 million in public funding to expand broadband annually over the next five years.

Hayes would do the former with “buy-in from business leaders, regional and local economic development professionals, and most importantly, from Maine people,” according to her site. Large-scale public investment for broadband hasn’t caught on in the Legislature. Lawmakers didn’t include a $100 million bond proposal in this year’s bond package.

Caron’s path to victory is narrow, but his plan is the most detailed and ambitious — if unlikely — while incorporating a mix of conservative and liberal ideas. The independent’s plan is a centrist one, although it is more ambitious than the party nominees at times on both ends of the political spectrum. For example, Caron wants to cut government spending by 10 percent and reduce the Legislature from 186 members in both chambers to 100 — 75 in the House and 25 senators.

Both of those proposals would be massive changes, but they’re not likely to happen. For one, state budget spending typically increases every year — particularly in good economic times. Legislators have also predictably been cool to proposals to shrink their ranks.

Caron also wants transition Maine — historically one of the states most reliant on fossil fuels — to 100 percent energy independence within 30 years. That would require a massive ramp-up in wind and solar energy. One group said in 2015 that Maine could reach energy independence by 2050 largely by being 70 percent reliant on wind power. It was at 20 percent in 2017.

He wants to save a lot of money, but Caron also wants to spend plenty. He would offer two years of tuition-free postsecondary education and training, would pay a higher share of K-12 education costs, and he embraces a $100 million bond for broadband infrastructure.

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