Last week, the new members of the 126th Legislature met for the first time. Many have asked, “What will be different?” There are two main things Democrats hope will be different. First, Democrats are leading the way to strengthen our economy, put people back to work and grow Maine’s middle class.
Over the past year, Democratic lawmakers have heard from hundreds of thousands of Maine people, which brings me to the second difference: Residents want a new, civil tone for this state.
Together we face serious challenges. But we do not have to disparage our workforce and schools or denigrate our state. We can improve, and we will. But the way to do so is not through shaming — it’s by doing.
Democrats have outlined four areas where we will focus on getting things done for Mainers: workforce development, education, lowering the costs of energy and health care and investing in infrastructure and research and development.
Too many Mainers are unemployed, underemployed or lacking the skill sets needed for better-paying jobs. There are more than 50,000 Mainers currently unemployed. This is grossly unacceptable, especially when it’s estimated there are thousands of jobs between now and 2018 that will remain unfilled because of our skills gap. To address this, Democrats have formed a special committee, the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future.
The committee will work with workforce experts, economists, small-business and industry leaders to formulate solutions to address Maine’s workforce challenges. We believe if we make targeted investments that strengthen the skill sets of Maine workers, our economy will thrive and the middle class will grow.
Nothing is more important for a vibrant economy and robust middle class than a well-prepared workforce.
We want the classroom to be the best learning environment it can be. We can accomplish this by supporting our teachers, providing our schools with the tools they need and continuing our efforts to advance innovative learning models like standards-based education where the student is the focus. We must also examine where and when education begins. Investing in early-childhood education is not only right but smart.
Health care and energy
The Legislature must work to put more money in the pockets of Maine families and small businesses, so they can spend it locally and help create jobs. We can do this by lowering energy and health care costs.
Solving Maine’s energy challenges will require short- and long-term solutions such as supporting energy efficiency now and diversifying our energy resources for the future.
We must also address our health-care challenges. This means fixing the health insurance laws passed last session, which allowed insurance companies to hike rates on Mainers. In addition to improving the law, we must work to provide long-term solutions that lower the cost of health care by placing greater emphasis on the prevention and treatment of chronic illness.
Research and development
We need an economic investment package that will fix our crumbling roads and bridges. A strong transportation network is vital for interstate commerce and people who need to get to their jobs. We must also invest in research and development, which will set us on a course for long-term job growth. Studies show every $1 of state R&D investment returns $12 in economic benefits.
This is an ambitious agenda, but times such as these demand bold action. They also require cooperation. The challenges we face are too big for one party to solve. Democrats stand ready to work with our Republican colleagues and Gov. Paul LePage. We must meet the moment to move Maine forward.
Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is president of the Maine Senate. This is his first in a series of monthly columns about the Maine Legislature.