About eight years ago, former state economist Laurie Lachance wrote a terrific analysis of all the economic plans that had been developed in Maine over the preceding 30 years, and what a succession of governors had done to implement them. She called it, appropriately, “In Search of Silver Buckshot.”
Lachance described Maine’s tendency to set off boldly in a new direction with each incoming gubernatorial administration, only to face resistance from out-of-power parties which produced only half-hearted action. A few short years later, when the next administration was installed, we would abruptly change course to move in a new direction.
Her narrative perfectly illustrated why government’s role in the economy is and should be limited. It’s because of politics, after all, that we ended up with a string of industrial parks and incubators around the state, most of which exist now as testaments to the limits of the then-prevailing notion that the way to grow the economy is by building ball fields in the middle of corn fields, and hoping “they would come.”
When we were building those industrial parks, it was thought that fairness required that everyone should have one. But of course the market can’t support one for everyone.
Part of why things haven’t really gotten better in Maine is that both parties have an approach to the economy that is long on ideology and short on production. Republicans want to shrink government so the private sector can move us forward, and they want to lower taxes, both of which look good in campaign brochures. Unfortunately, the private sector needs well-educated workers, entrepreneurs, good roads, clean air and water, public safety and vibrant, attractive communities. None of which comes free.
Democrats want “stimulus” spending to hire more public employees and create “fast jobs” in construction that, incidentally, help win elections.
What we really need to do is to take the best ideas from Republicans, Democrats and independents and combine them into a nonpartisan strategy for growing the economy and improving the lives of all Maine people. It would have to be a plan that makes sense, focuses on the private sector and includes ongoing public investments in those areas where government action is essential.
At the core of that nonpartisan strategy should be the idea of focusing public support on small businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs. Those are the people who are already busy growing the next Maine economy, not by stealing jobs from somewhere else but by growing them here.
That plan might also include things like this:
1. Working together to make government as efficient and modern as possible.
2. Lowering taxes on people and companies that actually create jobs.
3. Streamlining environmental regulations without gutting them.
4. Reducing welfare by raising the minimum wage.
5. Reorganizing higher education so it requires less money for bricks and redundant administration and puts more into the classroom to prepare students for tomorrow’s jobs.
6. Approving bonds that support entrepreneurs and build the transportation and digital infrastructure that Maine needs to grow a new economy.
The good news is that a conversation about a nonpartisan economic plan for Maine that can span more than one administration is already underway in various places across the state. It isn’t happening in the heart of any campaigns, where the focus is usually on defining differences rather than agreements. And it isn’t happening much in the Legislature, given how busy they are wading through two thousand to three thousand bills each year.
Nonpartisan thinking about Maine’s future is happening exactly where the next economy is being built, which is among the small businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and do-ers of Maine.
If you’d like to be part of it, plan on attending a breakfast gathering this coming Wednesday, in Portland, sponsored by Envision Maine (envisionmaine.org).
It will feature four of the state’s top thinkers on the innovative, entrepreneurial economy, who will be presenting their ideas on what Maine can do to move ahead. The gathering will feature Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, Democratic House Majority Leader Seth Berry, innovation expert Catherine Renault and one of the state’s best thinkers on education, former CMP chairman David Flanagan.
They’ll be discussing not only what we need to do to grow a new economy, but how to build consensus around a nonpartisan approach.
You’ll want to mark your calendars, also, for the first Summit on Maine’s Next Economy, an all-day gathering of Maine’s doers, in Freeport, on Sept. 26.
A wave is building in Maine for a new, bottom-up economy. Jump on, and be part of it.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and the co-author of an upcoming book called “Maine’s Next Economy.” He can be contacted at: