“In ____, we understand that high-tech companies don’t just happen overnight but are a product of forethought, sound vision and planning, and strategic investments by both the public and private sectors. Through our Emerging Technology Fund, we are bringing the best scientists and researchers to ____, attracting high-tech jobs and helping startup companies get off the ground faster.”
Given Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bond for research and development, you might think that quote was from a Democratic governor, maybe a strong liberal. If so, you were wrong. That was Republican Gov. Rick Perry, no liberal, touting the Texas Emerging Technology Fund as a path forward.
One Texas grant developed a medical monitor that uses wireless technology so medical providers can get continual information about patients. Lighter and smaller than other monitors, it attracted millions in matching funds and is being tested in the U.S. by a health insurance company and on battlefields by the Department of Defense.
Texas’s R&D program, funded with bonds and appropriations, is hardly unique. Virginia finances millions in its public-private Biotechnology Research Partnership Authority.
North Carolina’s effort flourished over decades of consistent effort. One hundred and seventy companies are located in the Research Triangle Park, employing 40,000 people. As North Carolina invested in R&D, its population became wealthier and more educated.
About fifteen years ago, a bipartisan group of Maine leaders realized that R&D is critical to the state’s future. After creating the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, which supports university-based research in seven areas, two state senators — Republican Rick Bennett and Democrat Mary Cathcart — led a Joint Select Committee to figure out how to increase research and development.
The Maine Technology Institute was founded in 1999, with leadership also from Carol Kontos, Richard Rosen, Jill Goldthwait and Steve Rowe, as well as then-Gov. Angus King and State Planning Office Director Evan Richert.
Bipartisan backing for MTI continued, with support from Gov. John Baldacci, legislators and the Maine people. In 2007-2008, another committee including Chris Rector and Emily Cain oversaw the creation of the Maine Technology Asset Fund to increase competition and evaluate return on investment.
Why has there been such strong support? Because research and development creates a solid path to the future, to higher wages and a more vibrant economy. MTI links public and private efforts, stresses the commercialization of research and technology and has funded 1,300 projects, with every dollar spent yielding $12 in non-MTI funding.
R&D creates new endeavors and industries and helps existing companies not only survive but thrive. The rising tide lifts communities, supporting agriculture, manufacturing, schools, the arts, nonprofits and small businesses.
LePage’s veto of the R&D bond abandoned this bipartisan consensus and vision of Maine’s future, as did some legislators’ votes, including the thirteen Republican House members who first voted for and then against the bond.
As Kent Peterson, president of Yarmouth’s Fluid Imaging Technologies, said, “It is regrettable that investments in the technology space by the State of Maine are being blocked given that investment returns from prior outlays have demonstrable benefits in terms of new, high-paying jobs and new company startups, both of which Maine desperately needs.”
Some wanted to block the bond because they think government shouldn’t be involved with these programs. But they overlook how long government has promoted economic development, all the way back to Hamilton’s 1791 Report on Manufactures. Others argue it’s best to cut regulations and taxes and then business will flourish. But that didn’t work on the national level. Maine’s debt load is not high compared to other states, and interest rates are historically low. Even if the issue is how MTI operates, that can be worked out while letting the bond go to the voters.
Maine’s future, if it is to be bright, will involve a more educated citizenry and robust research and development, along with good social policies, beautiful rural and downtown areas and our arts and heritages.
Perhaps the next time LePage sees Perry at the Republican Governors Association, the Texas chief executive can tell him what those programs have done for the Lone Star State. And maybe the Pine Tree State can re-establish its path to the future.
Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at ASFried and at her blog, www.pollways.com.