LABOR

Maine labor force appears to be growing

After a long decline in worker population, Maine’s labor force is growing again, according to new estimates from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maine’s civilian labor force added over 17,000 new workers, a 2.6 percent increase, between October 2015 and October 2016, according to the bureau’s October 2016 estimates of regional and state employment. The recent growth in the state’s labor force offers Maine’s economy some relief after several years of shrinking labor pools. Maine’s labor force population peaked in the summer of 2013, and declined steadily for several years, stoking fears of a labor shortage. Maine’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October 2016 was estimated to be 4 percent, significantly lower than the national unemployment rate, which was 4.9 percent. Read the story.

ENERGY

LePage’s energy chief to step down

Gov. Paul LePage’s energy chief is stepping down, in part because of frustration with the influence of lobbyists in Augusta. Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said he enjoys the job he has held since 2013, but he expressed frustration with the power of lobbyists to define and advance energy policy in a citizen Legislature, where the turnover makes it hard for lawmakers to get up to speed on complex details. He will leave his position Dec. 9. Woodcock was highly respected in state energy circles. In contrast to the combative style of his boss, Woodcock was a calm voice who tried to build consensus to advance LePage’s priorities. Read the story.

Emera deal rejected by court for second time

For the second time, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has rejected a state commission’s approval of a proposal by Emera to increase its stake in an electric generating company. Emera, a Nova Scotia-based energy company, is parent to Emera Maine, an electric distribution utility that operates mostly in northern Maine. Emera sought to increase its ownership interest in Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp., a publicly traded electric generating utility with facilities in Maine. The state’s law on electricity restructuring is intended to keep generating and distribution companies separate to encourage competition in the industry. In an appeal of the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s initial approval of the proposal, the state Supreme Court rejected the plan by Emera to increase its 8 percent stake in Algonquin to 25 percent, saying the PUC misread the law on electricity restructuring. The court said the PUC failed to recognize that the increased stake in Algonquin could produce incentives for favoritism between the two companies. The proposal was then sent back to the PUC, which again approved the deal, but added 50 conditions on Algonquin’s operations. The court ruled those conditions meant the PUC exceeded its authority and the proposal should be rejected by the commission. Read the story.

SPORTS

Deadline nears for hockey franchise at Cross Arena

Godfrey Wood remains optimistic that he can pull together an investor group in time to bring an ECHL pro hockey franchise to Portland for the 2017-18 season. In order to submit a franchise application to the ECHL at its Jan. 17-18 board of governors meeting, Wood will need a lease approval from the Cross Insurance Arena board of trustees. Former Portland Pirates owner Ron Cain sold the team in May to a group that moved it to Springfield, Massachusetts, home to AHL headquarters. Soon after, Wood and Brad Church announced plans to assemble a team of investors to return pro hockey to Portland. Neal Pratt, the CIA board’s liaison, said he would need to receive a lease proposal by mid-December. Read the story.

TRANSPORTATION

Maine DOT chief expects to have role in national transportation legislation

The top official in Maine’s Department of Transportation has been selected to lead a national transportation trade group. David B. Bernhardt, the commissioner of Maine’s DOT, has been chosen by the board of directors of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to serve as its next president for 2017, according to a release from the DOT. The group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan association representing highway and transportation departments in 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Its primary goal is to foster the development, operation and maintenance of an integrated national transportation system. Bernhardt will concentrate on working closely with the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, as well as members of Congress to develop strong transportation legislation. Read the story.

HEALTH CARE

Health insurer stemming losses

Community Health Options, a Lewiston-based nonprofit health insurance cooperative, trimmed its losses for its third quarter compared to last year. The cooperative said it lost $3.3 million for the July-September period, compared to a loss of $17.3 million for the same period last year. The cooperative lost $31 million last year stemming from an unexpected deluge of claims as clients sought care for long-delayed conditions. In its wake, CHO set aside $43 million in reserves to cover potential losses for this year. The Maine Bureau of Insurance considered legal steps to put the insurer into receivership as part of a plan to drop thousands of policyholders, but was thwarted by the federal government, which requires customers continue to be covered. The next few months will be critical for CHO because the last half of 2015 was when its losses mounted after turning a small profit in 2014 – the only health insurance cooperative set up under the Affordable Care Act to make money that year. Last year, thousands of CHO policyholders, many of whom had not been covered by insurance before the ACA, sought medical care and started to hit out-of-pocket limits in the last half of the year, shifting the cost of their medical care entirely to CHO. Read the story.

MANUFACTURING

Papermaker seeks approval to remove dams, restore fish habitat

Sappi North America is seeking approvals to remove a dam and make other changes along the Presumpscot River in Westbrook as part of a historic agreement to restore fish populations and enhance recreational uses in the upper river. Parties involved in the agreement, announced Wednesday, hope it will help revive fish spawning runs and fishing opportunities, as well as attract whitewater kayakers and additional tourists to Westbrook. It also marks the latest stage in a decades-long effort to clean up and restore a heavily industrialized river running through one of Maine’s most populous areas. The proposal calls for removing two dam spillways, or headwalls, on either side of an island at Upper Saccarappa Falls and installing a ladder-like fish passage system around Lower Saccarappa Falls. Sections of the river bottom around the upper falls – which has been heavily altered over the past several hundred years – also will be reconfigured to allow fish easier upstream passage. The agreement was filed Tuesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has the authority to approve Sappi’s application to surrender its license to operate the Saccarappa hydroelectric facility. Read the story.

Verso mill in Jay aligned under specialty paper division

Verso Corp., which operates a mill in Jay, is consolidating its administrative offices and restructuring the paper company into two divisions as it continues to seek ways to trim costs. The company intends to consolidate its corporate offices in Miamisburg, Ohio, the site of its former rival NewPage’s headquarters, early in 2017. Verso acquired NewPage in January 2015. It also said it would reorganize its network of seven mills into two divisions: one for graphic paper and the other for specialty paper. Memphis-based Verso has been seeking to reduce expenses since it emerged from bankruptcy in July. Two weeks ago it announced it would lay off about 190 of its 580-person workforce at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay as it temporarily idles one paper machine that makes publishing papers. Once the shutdown takes effect, the mill will have an annual capacity of about 285,000 tons, split between publishing-grade papers and specialty papers, such as those used for labels, food wrap and flexible packaging.

The Androscoggin Mill will be managed under the specialty paper business division. Read the story.