For a long time, one nonpartisan organization in Maine has been publishing an annual report on the key indicators that measure Maine’s progress toward economic growth. Year after year, the report points out Maine’s problems: stagnant fourth-grade reading scores, a low percentage of people getting degrees in comparison with the rest of New England, meager public investment in research and development activities, and others.
The Measures of Growth report prepared by the Maine Development Foundation for the Maine Economic Growth Council is valuable in itself for tracking where the state stands, but — and the council agrees — it’s not enough. The council was created in 1993 with a more expansive mission to also develop and maintain a long-term economic plan for the state. But its funding was cut a couple years after it formed, and it couldn’t complete the work. It’s long past time it did.
“If having a plan is important for a business, then it must be infinitely more important for an entity such as the state of Maine. Without a plan, our efforts are at risk of becoming haphazard. Luck becomes a more important factor than informed decision-making. Changes in administration and politics subject our public policy to inconsistent changes in direction,” summed up Skip Bates, board chairman for the Maine Development Foundation, in his testimony in favor of LD 367, which is under consideration by the Legislature.
This bill, which was actually proposed by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, would restore funding to the council to enable it to create a long-range strategic economic improvement plan, which would be regularly reviewed and updated.
Through the Measures of Growth report, Maine has a good idea of what needs work. Now it needs strategies for how to improve — regardless of the administration in charge. With funding and a focus, LD 367 is a big step in that direction.
One might ask whether the council could just go ahead and create a plan without additional funding. But a plan is about more than words on a page: It’s about a transparent process of involving the public in each region, reaching out to businesses and industry leaders, research and making hard choices about what economic areas to prioritize. Mainly, it’s about creating a plan that enough people will agree on. If it’s not developed right, it won’t stick.
But there also needs to be legal weight. The bill is valuable not just because it would allot $370,000 to the council for 2017 through 2019 — a small price to pay compared with the millions Maine has put toward one initiative one year only to pull it the next, and the billions the state spends on education, workforce, infrastructure and tax incentives. It’s valuable because it would require the governor and Maine Legislature to consider the plan’s objectives when planning, administering or budgeting resources for programs that affect Maine’s economy.
For years BDN editorials have called for the state to develop an economic vision for its future — one that state leaders would then follow. Maine doesn’t have enough resources to be everything to everyone; it needs to pick where it can have the most return and stay the course. Lawmakers shouldn’t wait any longer to turn this bill into law.