Maine lawmakers are taking up a proposal for a $73 million bond package that would target investment in the state’s biotechnology and marine sectors and help small businesses grow.
The proposal, called the “small business an innovations jobs bond,” would make millions of dollars in loans available to small businesses and provide cash grants for business expansion projects that are matched with private and public funds.
The package is a product of the Legislature’s newly created Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the House chair of the committee, said he is pleased that the proposal was endorsed by 13 of the committee’s 15 lawmakers.
“Targeted, smart investment by the state can create good-paying jobs in 21st century fields that will keep our brightest young people here at home, bring dollars into Maine and move Maine’s economy forward,” Berry said.
Democrats are backing the proposal, but Republicans appear less enthusiastic. House minority leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said in a written statement that Republicans would not support a “massive” bond package.
Fredette said the package should be broken into separate bills so lawmakers could prioritize and evaluate each on its own merit. He said the Legislature must keep in mind that the state just issued $150 million in transportation infrastructure bonds.
“We must also be careful not to continue this line of thinking that says the only way to create jobs is for the government to go into debt and spend money,” he said.
Dozens of people testified in support of the proposal Thursday at a four-hour public hearing held by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. Supporters included small-business owners, fishermen, corporate executives, and business groups such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
In an interview, chamber president Dana Connors said the bond package would boost Maine economic sectors that are poised for growth, such as biometric analysis and precision medicine, agriculture and marine technology.
“It’s well-thought-out and has great promise for our economy,” Connors said.
Jackson Laboratories, a genetics research lab in Bar Harbor, is the one company that stands to gain the most from the proposed bond package. The company would receive a $15 million grant to build a new biometric analysis lab in Bar Harbor. The grant would be matched by $16 million in private and public contributions.
Mike Hyde, vice president of external affairs, said there is growing global demand for research that measures cellular-level changes induced by genetic mutation, and the proposed new lab would allow Maine to compete ‘in a very powerful way.”
He said the company would provide about half of the funding. Financial support from the state would guarantee that the project is built in Maine rather than another state or country, he said.
“This money is essential to our being able to do this,” he said.
Other elements in the proposed bond package include:
• $5 million for a loan guarantee program designed for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. The Finance Authority of Maine administers the program.
• $15 million for the authority’s regional economic development revolving loan program, which is also aimed at small businesses. Companies with as many as 100 employees would qualify.
• $10 million for a Maine Technology Institute fund to provide matching grants for projects that promote research and development and private-sector job creation.
• $8 million to renovate and improve a lab at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension to assist farmers and foresters and to identify pests and plant and animal diseases.
• $5 million for an expansion and modernization project at the Mount Desert Island Biological Lab. The project, which would be matched by $10.5 million in private and public funds, would allow the nonprofit to provide training in biotechnology for an additional 150 students per year.
• $15 million to create jobs in the marine-based economic sector, such as fisheries and aquaculture. Grants to businesses would be awarded on a competitive basis.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:
This article was updated at 8:11 a.m. Friday March 28, 2014 to correct the name of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.