In the last three years, several notable Maine economists have either relocated or stepped into retirement. Sensing a void in the market, economists Michael LeVert and Kate Reilly deLutio decided to open their own consultancy, 45 North Research.
If their names seem familiar, it’s likely because both were state economists under former Gov. John Baldacci. First Reilly and then LeVert operated out of the now-vanquished State Planning Office, helping to craft policy and perform research and analysis. In more recent years, LeVert has consulted and was former state Senate President Justin Alfond’s chief of staff, while Reilly deLutio was director of advancement at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.
Aware of the retirement of well-known Maine economist Charlie Colgan from the Muskie School of Public Policy and the impending semi-retirements of Planning Decisions principals Chuck Lawton and Frank O’Hara, the pair decided the time was right to pool their talents and open a consultancy.
Among their first projects: a helpful primer of the Maine state budget process. Produced in partnership with the Maine Development Foundation, the primer is an easy-to-understand guide for how the state’s budget is compiled and approved.
Q: You have both been doing this kind of work separately for years. What made you decide to open a consultancy together now?
ML: A lot of very well-regarded economists and public policy analysts retired, some of whom were our friends and mentors, and we felt we had something to offer.
KRD: We’ve both held positions in a variety of sectors and seen leaders facing practical challenges. They need to make decisions and for that, need to know how to access data, how to evaluate whether it’s credible, how to apply it and how to communicate it to stakeholders. That’s not always an intuitive thing to do.
Mike and I talked about this when we were working at the State Planning Office. It seemed like the right time, not only because of the retirements Mike mentioned, but because there’s so much information and it’s not intuitive what to do with it.
Q: You followed each other as state economists under Baldacci, and then, Michael, you worked for a while in Alfond’s office, so you both have a Democratic bent in your credentials. How do you convince clients you don’t have a particular point of view?
ML: No matter who you work for, you have a reputation as being credible or not. Although I was in a partisan environment, I think if you asked anyone on either side of the aisle, they would say I was always honest and credible and had good information. I think that transcends whether you have a D or an R after your name.
KRD: We’re building a track record with things like the primer. If you look at the inside cover page, you’ll see contributors from both parties. We’re striving for something that’s completely neutral and nonpartisan. I think the quality of our work will speak for itself.
ML: Also we’re not doing political consulting at all. What we’re offering is nonpartisan, unbiased information.
Q: You’ve mentioned you’ve done some modeling work to assess the impact of minimum wage on a certain workforce. As a journalist, I always am skeptical of a report presented by one side or the other around a political issue like raising the minimum wage. Each side has a think tank producing research that supports their point of view.
ML: Exactly. What Kate and I strive to do is give everyone the same facts. Then you can debate what kind of policy you want to develop around that.
Q: Is there a particular issue in Maine that you think just desperately cries out for more economic analysis?
KRD: Yes, and Mike will tell you I’ve been saying this for years, but tourism needs more focus. Tourism is an economic driver in its own right, but I think there’s untapped potential to turn every visitor to Maine into a lifelong consumer of Maine products. We could be doing a more active sales pitch so when they go home, they’ll consume Maine goods.
Don’t hold me to this, because it’s just a back-of-the-envelope calculation I did on the way down here, but we had 34 million tourists last year and our GDP was $57 billion. So if every one of these tourists went home and over the course of the year ordered $85 worth of Maine goods, it would increase our gross state product by 5 percent. That’s like another entire industry.
Q: Workforce development has been capturing all the headlines for the past couple of years. We’ve given a lot of attention to our shrinking labor pool and the demographic cliff confronting us in the next 10 years or so. Some organizations have been saying that attracting more immigrants is a potential solution to that problem, especially since Maine wages are roughly 80 percent of what you can earn elsewhere, which makes it hard to attract young professionals.
ML: Personally, I think the key is to get young people here and be welcoming to anyone who wants to come here and work.
KRD: We need a population that is having larger families and is eager to be here. There is a correlation between diverse populations and growing economies. I don’t think we can afford to be picky about who comes. I agree with Mike, we need to welcome everyone.
Q: You are both young and raising young families. Why did you stay in Maine?
ML: Well first, thank you for saying I’m young. We love being in Maine. There will always be opportunity elsewhere to make more money, but it’s not much of a draw. We’re raising two young kids here.
KRD: I grew up here, went away for school and came back. Luckily I met someone who loves Maine as much as I do and we’re raising our family here. But there’s another benefit to being in Maine, and that is for Mike and me, we’ve had a lot more opportunity here than we would have elsewhere.
ML: That’s true. At this point in our careers, we know everybody. It’s easier to be closer to important decision makers in Maine.
Q: Economics is often described as the dismal science. Neither of you strikes me as dismal. How do people react when you say you’re an economist?
KRD: You can immediately tell if someone had experience with economics depending on how their first teacher was. They love it, or they hate it. I always feel bad for the ones who are turned off because economics is so relevant to everyone’s life.
ML: Economics to me was always a framework for making decisions. You learn how to manage information and can apply that framework to many problems.
Q: You both have advanced degrees in economic and statistics. What are your areas of expertise?
KRD: We’re very broad, I think. We’ve done everything from traditional economic impact assessment to policy development to a little bit of modeling. Mike is an extremely good analyst. …I’d say my specialty is in the communication and presentation of information. We don’t write a lot of dense, jargon-y reports.
ML: I think our specialty is that we are experienced and know how to communicate really complex issues in a way that people can find accessible.
This story was changed at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 16 to correct the order in which Michael LeVert and Kate Reilly served under Gov. John Baldacci.