HAMPDEN — Maine’s economy has made great strides under the leadership of Gov. LePage and Republicans in the Legislature.

For the first time since 2008, Maine’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.7 percent, well below the national average. Since Gov. LePage took office, more than 8,000 new jobs have been created. This is the result of numerous reforms on tax policy, workers compensation, the state’s regulatory environment and others that Republicans and some Democrats in the Legislature have supported.

The Wall Street Journal recently identified Maine as one of two states that have seen “big turnarounds in their economies.” The other is Louisiana.

But Maine has not seen substantial growth in one sector of the job market: manufacturing and high technology, both of which are major employers.

While small businesses are and will always be the backbone of the Maine economy, we also need to target the Boeings and Toyotas of the world, which employ thousands of people. Because of their size, they create spin-off support services and, in the process, expand the tax base.

When businesses decide to expand or relocate, the cost of doing business on a large scale is an important consideration. The costs of energy, labor and taxes all play big roles. The signals a state gives these companies determine whether a state even makes the short list.

During the Democratic-led 126th Legislature, we took a giant step back, sending a negative message to large employers around the country: Don’t even think about coming to Maine if you’re expecting any incentives, and only union jobs are acceptable.

It’s a stance we simply cannot afford to take anymore.

Last winter, following conversations with major employers in the manufacturing and high-tech fields, the governor submitted and I sponsored a bill titled “An Act to Improve Maine’s Ability to Attract Major Private Investments.”

The bill was designed to make Maine competitive with other states that have succeeded in attracting large employers. It would have created two “Open for Business Zones” at the former military bases in Aroostook County and Brunswick, which have suffered major losses in population and jobs.

The bill’s goal: provide a number of proven incentives to entice large companies as other states have done. Among them:

n Eligibility for corporate income tax credits, sales tax exemptions and reimbursement of state withholding taxes.

n Reimbursements for electricity costs that exceed the national average.

n Greater access to capital through the Finance Authority of Maine.

n Employees in the “Open for Business Zones” would not have been required to join a labor union, but the companies would have had to meet prevailing wages in the region to qualify for the credits. This would have addressed concerns raised about the program offering only low-paying jobs.

Companies in the Open for Business Zones would have had to invest $50 million in capital and create 1,500 jobs in Maine.

Perhaps opponents’ biggest objection to the bill was its “right-to-work” language. It shouldn’t have been.

The freedom of workers to decide whether they wanted to join a labor union would have applied only to those businesses that set up shop in the Open for Business Zones..

Consider Indiana. Since enacting a right-to-work law two years ago, it has attracted 64 new companies, bringing in 8,000 new jobs and $2.5 billion in capital investment. An Indiana Economic Development Corp. official said right-to-work wasn’t the sole factor in bringing in those companies, but company executives the agency spoke with said they wouldn’t have considered Indiana without it.

And right-to-work should not be the sole consideration in Maine. We need to take numerous steps to make Maine competitive with other states, and that’s what my bill tried to do.

Testifying in favor of the bill, Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Development Authority, said, “Over the years, we have watched world-class businesses with large-scale economic development projects go to Alabama, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, New York and Canada that we never really had a shot at, simply because we have been uncompetitive. We have the facilities, infrastructure, and the talented people in Maine to support these projects, but not the economic tools and supportive business climate to attract them.”

Maine’s economy continues to make strides, but it will be able to take great leaps only when we have the courage to reassess whether we are, indeed, open for business to large employers.

— Special to the Press Herald