SEARSMONT, Maine — A new 10-year economic plan for Maine released on Wednesday by Gov. Janet Mills sets goals of growing the workforce by 75,000 people and raising wages by 10 percent in a bid to both stem the economic effects of an aging population.
Few will disagree with the goals in the 44-page plan, which is a largely consensus framework shaped over most of 2019 by a group of state, business and nonprofit interests. But they are lofty and similar efforts have bogged down in the past. Many of the more sweeping policy recommendations will prompt debate over cost and effect in Augusta.
“As we approach our bicentennial, it’s time to build on the foundation of our past 200 yars to create a forward-looking economy for the next 200 years,” Mills said at a news conference at Robbins Lumber in Searsmont. “That’s the goal of this plan.”
The Democratic governor’s plan charts three main goals over the next decade. The most ambitious is one to grow Maine’s workforce by 75,000 people, running counter to a demographic trend in the nation’s oldest state by median age. As things stand, it is expected to contract by 65,000.
The plan identifies several strategies for meeting those goals, including enhancing the skills of Maine’s existing workforce, attracting workers from other places, helping seniors and people with disabilities to work in greater numbers, expanding broadband, improving the state’s childcare, transportation and housing systems and streamlining permitting processes.
Among the most ambitious of the 28 policy recommendations in the plan are a universal pre-kindergarten program, a new loan guarantee program for companies that finance broadband expansion projects and enshrining a career exploration program that will follow kids from kindergarten through high school.
Mills said on Wednesday that she will begin pursuing legislation and executive action in early 2020 to begin implementing the plan. Some of the goals — such as making changes to business permitting process — can be done by the administration. Mills has tasked her Cabinet with developing a universal pre-K program, which could develop over the course of years.
The overarching goals are nothing new. A need for more research and development funding has been a common refrain in economic development conversations over the past generation. Mills’ plan also sets a goal of raising value added per worker by 10 percent over the decade, a measure that has been targeted by the Maine Economic Growth Council and lagged the U.S. average by 25 percent in 2015.
Maine last tried to pull together a similar economic plan in 1993, but the Legislature stripped most of the funding from it. This one was coordinated by the Mills administration with a number of outside partners, including the nonprofit Maine Development Foundation and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed it on Wednesday.
The political environment in Augusta may pose a challenge. Mills is entering her first legislative election cycle in the Blaine House in 2020 and minority Republicans have made the level of spending in a $8 billion two-year budget a main issue with the governor.
For example, a commission that aimed to find more money for the state’s embattled transportation system has deadlocked so far on raising the gas tax. Solving that problem — given an estimated $232 million shortfall for road and bridge maintenance — is also identified as a goal in Mills’ economic plan.