The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
The committee charged with recommending urgent measures to stabilize and support Maine’s economy amid the coronavirus pandemic recommended the state provide $1.1 billion in aid in an initial report to Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday.
After narrowing down recommendations from six subcommittees last Friday, the co-chairs of the Democratic governor’s Economic Recovery Committee said the damage the virus has caused in Maine “is widespread and has pushed many otherwise healthy Maine businesses to the brink.” A final report on sustaining and growing the economy is due Dec. 1. The committee was convened by the governor in June.
“With swift, significant financial support, we may prevent this year from being their last, and give them the chance to prosper in the future,” wrote Tilson Technology CEO Josh Broder and Thomas College President Laurie Lachance, the co-chairs of the committee.
In the 25-page report, the committee recommended three categories of allocations. It suggested spending $497 million to support Maine people, including $20 million for public health, $300 million for pre-K through 12th grades and $25 million for childcare. To stabilize businesses, it recommended $430 million, including $350 million in employer grants to for-profit and nonprofit businesses. The final $165 million would include $100 million for a broadband connections bond.
Funds remain scarce. The committee co-chairs said the $1.25 billion the state received from the federal CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds is insufficient to meet the needs the committee identified. The $600 in weekly expanded federal unemployment benefits may expire this month and state and local revenue forecasts are gloomy, necessitating more federal aid.
The committee also said any plan for economic recovery in Maine will fail without robust, sustained public health measures to keep the state safe. Mills welcomed the recommendations.
“In the coming weeks my administration will work with the Legislature and others to further examine these recommendations and chart a path forward,” the governor said in a statement.
Mills is already considering quick-start recommendations that the committee submitted on July 1, Broder said. They include acting quickly to dispense $300 million in federal funds to businesses suffering pandemic-related losses. He and Lachance were not sure when the governor would start doling out funds, but they advised her to do so quickly. The funds must be spent by a statutory deadline of Dec. 31.
Broder and Lachance heard stories from businesses, schools and other parts of the economy in addition to holding 70 committee meetings over the past couple months. Broder said one comment that jumped out at him came from the Federal Reserve of Boston, which talked to the committee.
The Boston Fed noted that some groups in Maine have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, but those were the groups that the economy wasn’t working as well for prior to the pandemic. Those include communities of color, immigrant communities and small or rural businesses. Broder said the committee tried to provide support for them in its plan. For example, it asked for $7 million for immigrant workers.
Still, the committee said its recommendations leave significant unmet needs for Maine’s economy. It emphasized to the governor that the state urgently needs more federal stimulus funds, which are currently under discussion by the federal government.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency shed light on some unused funding from federal agencies in a recent draft report it submitted to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and the Maine Emergency Management Agency. A committee spokesman said there has been discussion of aligning the committee’s work with FEMA’s once the report is final.
When it convenes next on July 31, the committee will take up suggestions for long-term economic development. Those may include lobster pound aquaculture, renewable energy and backing the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect hydropower corridor.
The work of listening to stories of hardship and making tough decisions in the face of having too little money has had its challenges. Broder said he’s spent 15-20 hours a week outside of his normal work at Tilson gathering information and planning and attending meetings.
“Absorbing the stories of hardship that have come out of the information-gathering process has been very difficult,” he said. “At the same time, it brought a sense of urgency to work you know is impossible to ignore.”