We all know Maine is a poor state. We’re told how high food stamp rates are, how many of our children need free lunch at school and all the other measures of poverty. I deliver firewood all over central Maine, and I see the consequences of our dismal economy every day. You can know how poor we are, but when you look poverty in the eye it becomes much different. It becomes unacceptable.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I counted up the job losses in this part of Maine over the last 20 years. Starting at Interstate 95 through Dexter and Dover-Foxcroft to Millinocket, we counted 10,000 middle-class jobs gone from a population base of about 50,000. At one time, this was the most prosperous part of Maine, a major driver of the Maine economy. Now if we aren’t the welfare and unemployment capital of Maine it’s a miracle.
Then, look back over the last few decades at all the projects that have been proposed to improve our economy to which we’ve said no: the Dickey-Lincoln dam that was never built on the St. John River, a container port on Sears Island, Port of Searsport development, the Big A Dam meant to power the Great Northern Paper Co. mill in Millinocket. Plum Creek spent tens of millions of dollars to be allowed to sell fewer than a thousand house lots on 16,000 acres in the Moosehead region. Even though the company has gotten through the first step, most of a decade has passed and no development has taken place yet. We’ve let our freight rail service degenerate to the point at which it’s almost useless.
Mills are shutting down in the winter to avoid the high cost of electricity while we’ve torn out dams and dismantled generators of cheap power. But we’re bulldozing mountain tops to build windmills. We aren’t allowed by our Legislature to buy cheap electricity from Canada.
We’re about to let a $2 billion dollar investment in the Maine economy slip through our fingers like we have so many other improvements over the years. A project that would provide hundreds of full-time, benefit-paying jobs long after the hundreds of millions in construction payroll is gone. A project that would lower our property taxes because of the taxes this business would have to pay. A project that would improve our transportation system and lower those costs to help our businesses compete. That project is the East-West Highway.
We’re told tourism is the answer. Heaven knows we need those jobs, but how do they compare to the jobs we’ve lost? We’re told we all can raise vegetables in our backyard and sell them beside the road. I can assure you, welfare pays much better and you won’t get sunburned.
The point is, we’re being convinced to say no to all these projects by out-of-state groups that don’t have any answers and really don’t care. If anything is going to be done to cure this poverty, it’s going to come from us.
We might think government knows best and will get this economy moving. How has that been working out for us?
You might think there’s really nothing we can do, and if we speak up some group will attack us claiming all kinds of bad things about us. Could be, but we are the answer if we can find the courage. I served in the Legislature for 10 years, and I can promise you the solutions to get our economy moving again won’t originate there. The solutions will have to come from us, and we’ll have to demand those fixes in a loud enough voice so those who want our votes listen. If we lead they’ll follow.
Let’s start leading and make Maine as good a place to make a living as it is a place to live.
Doug Thomas of Ripley is a former Republican member of the Maine Senate and the Maine House.