A panel tasked by Gov. Janet Mills with spurring Maine’s economic recovery will ask for $200 million for innovation and entrepreneurship, though discussions bogged down in a final meeting on Friday with members divided on two controversial proposals.
Even though it had planned to discuss final wording for the 38-page draft recommendations it released Wednesday, committee members spent a large part of the two-hour meeting debating whether to include references to a controversial consumer-owned utility proposal as an option to modernize Maine’s energy supply and innovation financing. Other members focused on the critical need for economic help now. The report is due to Gov. Janet Mills by Dec. 1.
As the meeting ended, infrastructure subcommittee member Sam May, also the board chair of the Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union, said he was seriously considering resigning because of a lack of consensus.
The 40-member committee needs 100 percent consensus on the wording of its report, which was pulled together from recommendations of three subcommittees. But the meeting showed deep divisions on topics including the consumer-owned utility, which would replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power, and alternative financing for innovation including a potential bond issue. Discussions on the final wording are continuing privately by committee members throughout Friday.
The draft report included one sentence saying the governor “should direct the Maine Public Utilities Commission to engage in modernized grid planning and utility business model reforms to ensure that it is aligned with the state’s climate plan.” Some thought that was a veiled recommendation for a consumer-owned utility.
Innovation subcommittee member Dana Connors, who also is president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, was concerned about the committee seeming to recommend a consumer-owned utility. Talent subcommittee member Vaughn Woodruff, owner of InSource Renewables, said the issue needed to be addressed, but when watered-down wording was suggested, he recommended pulling all of the wording.
The committee agreed that the sentence would be withdrawn in the final version that goes to the governor. However, the end of the report does explain that two subcommittee recommendations weren’t included in the final report, the one on expanding financing options for innovation projects, including clean energy, and the alternative ownership structures for energy assets including further study of a consumer-owned utility.
Josh Broder, the committee co-chair and the CEO of Tilson Technology, pointed out that there already is a study proposed on the consumer-owned utility and a referendum proposal in the works.
“I think it would burn our report with this headline-grabbing and contentious issue,” he said. “It takes away precious focus from those core recommendations that we’ve built momentum around.”
In its first report in July, the committee recommended that the governor dispense $1.1 billion in federal aid to Maine businesses, schools and other organizations. The final report focuses on ways to sustain and grow the economy. That report makes eight core recommendations and five other recommendations after seven months of work.
In a letter to Mills preceding the report, the committee said that despite the challenges of the virus, it believes the recommendations will get Maine on track with a state economic development Strategy aiming to make the state an international leader with a vibrant, sustainable and environmentally responsible economy by 2030.
The recommendations to grow the economy include $200 million to develop entrepreneurship and innovation including in fisheries, improving internet access, supporting early care and education, creating affordable housing, putting $5.2 million toward early childhood education and workforce development and spending $1 million to devise a strategy to make Maine a diverse, equitable and inclusive state.
The committee suggested various ways to fund recommendations including bonds, loans and loan guarantees through the Finance Authority of Maine, Maine Technology Asset Fund grants and the Maine Venture Fund.
The committee reiterated its call to Congress and both the current and incoming presidential administrations to deliver further stimulus.
“It was needed in July. It is most urgent now,” the report said.