Growing Maine’s economy is quite simple: We need more money coming into the state than goes out. At the height of the summer tourism season, our gateway bridges become the perfect metaphor for encouraging vacation travelers to come, enjoy, and leave their money behind — all with our unqualified and enthusiastic gratitude.
Last week, two old bridges that connect Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H., made the news. They are in such poor condition that weight limits and possible closure are seriously being considered. The bridges are jointly owned by the state of Maine and the state of New Hampshire.
In the more prosperous Granite State, the Legislature said it would front the money to replace the deteriorating Memorial Bridge if Maine pledged to make up the difference when replacing the second bridge. Their governor said they were good to go. Our governor said we’ll wait and see.
A study is near completion. Having thought about it, New Hampshire made a decision. But across the waters of the Piscataqua River, we’re still pondering. It is emblematic of how our two states operate. We do a lot of expensive studies and take our time making decisions. New Hampshire gets enough information and acts.
The decisions we make make a difference. According to the Economic Activity Index produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, New Hampshire has led all the New England states since 1992. Maine, on the other hand, has been near or at the bottom for economic vitality during the same period of time.
Why the difference? As one New Hampshire official told me, “The difference between Maine and New Hampshire is that New Hampshire loves business and hates government. Maine hates business and loves government.”
Household median income in New Hampshire, by the way, is $20,000 greater than in Maine.
In the same week that we heard the plight about our gateway bridges, the Maine Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation, or MDF, released a new report titled “Making Maine Work.” The document outlines challenges facing Maine’s economy and prescribes actions that Maine’s next governor and Legislature need to take in order to move Maine in a more prosperous direction.
The basis of the publication is a thought-provoking survey of more than 1,000 Maine businesses. Another, pithier document titled “Maine’s Investment Imperative II” — authored by the Maine Development Foundation (found at mdf.org) — is a longer narrative of our challenges and opportunities.
By the authors’ own admission, “Making Maine Work” has virtually no new information. Many of the key metrics by which we measure Maine’s economic health show roughly the same poor performance as in years past or, sadly, that we are trending further in the wrong direction: health care costs are high and rising, energy costs are high and rising, state regulations are impediments to progress, and taxes and fees are high and rising.
These two fine organizations are apolitical; they do not engage in election politics but, instead, try to facilitate informed debate. They are bridge builders.
From that perspective, their report concludes, “What is clear from the interviews and survey findings is that the business community and the political powers in the state need to find a way to push through these issues and work more collaboratively or Maine will continue to stall on economic growth.”
Their organizations have to play the hand that they are dealt. Whomever the voters send to Augusta, MDF and the chamber have to begin anew in the education and lobbying process. Endless forums and more than 18 years of a great MDF program called Leadership Maine have brought together hundreds of business people with state legislators to learn about Maine’s economy.
Has everyone’s effort made any serious measurable progress? Not according to Maine’s economic activity score.
The solution to resolving the conflicts between Maine’s family-owned businesses and legislative leaders does not begin when the Legislature is called into session. It begins every election cycle when citizens become candidates and voters mark their ballots.
Unfortunately, people sitting on the political sidelines have exacted a terrible cost on Maine families and senior citizens. not getting involved, underqualified candidates with little understanding of the economy run and often are elected. example, what does a part-time swim coach fresh out of college know about solving a billion-dollar hole in the state budget?
We have to do better.
All the greatest concerns cited in the survey can be addressed in Augusta: regulations, the costs of health care, energy and workers’ compensation, etc.
Whom you choose to send there will determine if we truly move the measures of our prosperity or simply wait for the next study about our deteriorating economy. It’s time to build real and political bridges with a qualified legislative work force.
What do you think and what are you willing to do about it?
Tony Payne is a lifelong Maine resident active in business, civic and political affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]