Who cares what business leaders are thinking? Well, these days, most everyone has an eye on their boss as they wonder how the enterprise is doing and whether their job is going to be impacted by an executive decision.

The fifth edition of Minding Maine’s Business, a statewide survey of Maine business decision makers, provides some promising statistics and sobering realities.

The in-depth survey was conducted by Critical Insights (www.criticalinsights.com) in March.

The good news from the poll is that 2009 appears to be the emotional bottom for Maine’s business leaders.

The Maine research firm polled 400 business decision makers to measure their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors as they related to their enterprises.

Cautious optimism is on the rise. As of this spring, one of every three senior executives and business owners in Maine anticipates improvements in the economy during the next year.

A year ago, only one in five business leaders felt any optimism and 25 percent expected to lay off employees. This year, only 18 percent expect to make layoffs.

Over the next five years, 60 percent of Maine employers said they expect to grow. Interestingly, only 22 percent were optimistic about Maine’s economy during the same time frame.

What are business leaders feeling good about? Maine’s education system and the depth of the labor pool are considered to be a net positive, as is the state’s environment and quality of life. Employers also consider the work ethic of Maine people to be one of our greatest assets.

Getting in the way of their enthusiasm are things pertaining to government and public policy in Maine. What are most negative factors for Maine’s private sector employers?

Eighty percent said health care costs.

Seventy-four percent said state and local taxes.

Seventy-three percent said the state regulatory process.

Sixty-three percent said energy costs.

Fifty-four percent said workers’ compensation costs.

Seventy-one percent of business leaders said Maine state government has a negative attitude toward business growth and investment. Eighty-two percent said they have little to no confidence in the Legislature’s ability to foster or promote business development.

contrast, more than half of these self-reliant leaders said Maine’s private sector is better suited to foster business development.

Most sobering is the 41 percent who said they would be unlikely to expand or relocate their business in Maine. Fortunately, an equal percentage said they would stay and grow in Maine.

The home-bodies were largely along the coast, in the service sector with few employees. Those who were looking outside the state were from central Maine.

What conclusions can be drawn from these polling numbers?

It appears that business leaders believe they can and will succeed in spite of government in Maine.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was that species that adapt to change survive and prosper. Life forms that feel threatened by a change in their environment physically change, migrate to where they can thrive, or die. That is the case for businesses in Maine.

After the most recent legislative session, business lobbyists’ common theme was “We didn’t get hurt too badly and we succeeded in defeating the worst of the bills that were job killers.” That’s not much of a ringing endorsement for the Legislature, or for state government. It also suggests that businesses need an affirmative agenda.

While businesses clearly feel confident in controlling their own destinies, they seem to lack understanding or confidence when it comes to public policy and politics.

In a separate 2009 Critical Insights poll of business leaders, 55 percent of those responding said that businesses should not be involved in electing candidates for the state Legislature.

Fifty-two percent said they would get involved if an issue impacted their business, yet fewer than 10 percent had ever been involved.

A third said that they never mix business and politics or are afraid that political involvement would hurt their business.

Maine businesses often are described as spouses caught in abusive relationships — they always believe things might get better if they just don’t irritate their oppressors.

Unfortunately, the strongest will vote with their feet rather than engage in politics. That leaves weaker businesses, fewer jobs and even fewer career opportunities for our children.

All of Maine would benefit if more employees and employers talked about the issues that impact their businesses, theircustomers and their families. The more information and dialogue we share, the better the chance we have of electing the best representation for the future of Maine.

As the old Maine Lottery slogan used to say, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

What do you think and what are you willing to do about it?

 

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on the effects of public policy on the state’s economy. He can be reached at:

[email protected]