Maine’s political history is littered with economic development initiatives that started with enthusiasm and some funding, but afterwards lost much of their vigor without a sustained state commitment.
Take the Maine Economic Growth Council. Republican Gov. Jock McKernan and lawmakers formed it in the early 1990s and charged it with developing a long-term economic strategy for Maine. As the council’s 19 members carried out their charge, funding evaporated and no long-term economic plan materialized.
Or Maine & Company. A group of business leaders formed it in 1995 to focus on attracting out-of-state businesses to Maine. State funding peaked in 1999 and disappeared by 2003.
Or the Maine Technology Institute, which formed in 1999 to support private-sector research and product development in seven targeted technology sectors. On multiple occasions, policymakers have recommended consistent investment in the institute through bond issues. But MTI has not received an infusion of bond funding for key R&D programs since 2010.
Maine’s newly elected Legislature, which starts business in Augusta next week, has the chance to save another economic development initiative from a similar fate. Legislative leaders should act accordingly and resurrect a two-year-old special committee that focused largely on workforce development and support for small businesses.
Two years ago, legislative leaders from newly elected Democratic majorities formed the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future in an effort to highlight workforce training and support for small businesses as policy priorities. The committee didn’t convene as a permanent legislative fixture, but leaders of Maine’s newly sworn-in Legislature would be wise to continue it.
The workforce panel had a charge — put together legislation to step up Maine’s workforce training to prepare the state’s workers for an evolving jobs landscape — and produced a piece of legislation in response. In contrast, traditional legislative committees spend the bulk of their time considering and reacting to various legislative proposals that come their way.
In its first year, the workforce committee put together a wide-ranging legislative package that included funding for scholarships to enable adults with some college education but no degree to enroll in a University of Maine System degree program, funds for the Maine Community College System to develop new degree programs in high-demand areas and reduce program waitlists, a mandate for the two systems to allow seamless credit transfers, money for the Maine Apprenticeship Program and more.
The initiatives, which were ultimately included in the state budget, were small but positive steps to help Maine make progress in areas where, in some cases, it lags its New England neighbors.
Over the past year, the committee developed five of the six bond issues that appeared on the November ballot, all of which Maine voters approved. Those represented small but necessary investments in support for small businesses and innovation in a handful of critical sectors of Maine’s economy.
The committee’s work enjoyed bipartisan support, including unanimous support for the worker training legislation.
Forming a committee isn’t the key to solving Maine’s workforce challenges, but the committee’s formation represented a policy focus for the Legislature — a signal that these specific policy areas were important to the state’s future growth. Given the breadth of this policy area — having a skilled workforce is key to the state’s economic growth prospects — there’s no way two years of a close focus on it is sufficient if Maine is to move the needle.
Workforce development and support for small business deserve more than a two-year spurt of concerted focus. Allowing this committee to continue is one way to ensure Maine’s economic growth policies don’t follow the usual path of initial enthusiasm that soon sputters out.