Saturday, March 8, 2014
With all the candidates running for governor offering their answers to Maine's problems, it's worth taking a moment to step back and consider whether we are asking the right questions.
State Economist Michael LeVert has attempted to do that in a series of presentations around the state this spring on choices Mainers could make to move the state into a new era of prosperity.
The factors LeVert pinpoints as areas in which we can make a real difference -- increasing educational attainment and preserving and enhancing the quality of the places that make Maine special -- are not new. But his idea that they should be the focus of an economic development strategy, rather than nice-to-have extra features, is worth looking at.
Maine has an economy that is in transition from one that could rely on manufacturing and natural resources to supply a steady stream of good-paying jobs to one that is more dependent on supplying services.
As we make this transition, LeVert asks, what kind of investments do we make for our future and how are we going to pay for them?
How do we care for the people who need it while creating pathways that will make people more independent and self-supporting?
Where will our economic opportunities come from?
LeVert is in the question business, and the answers are really up to the public to decide through our political process. But he does offer some areas where he thinks we should be looking.
LeVert's research suggests that not all of the developments in Maine's economy since what many remember as a "Golden Age" in the 1960s have been negative.
The creation of the Community College System is providing 16,000 Mainers with the skills they need and that employers are looking for. Land conservation has grown dramatically, and the forest products industry is producing as much paper as it ever did -- while using sustainable forestry.
But there are also trends that, if they are not stopped, would stall progress.
Our population growth is flat and our people are aging. Many years of sprawl development have stretched our ability to pay for services like roads and schools in sparsely settled areas. State revenues are volatile and our infrastructure is suffering. So is our university system, which is forced to cut programs and restructure as state support continues to shrink.
The answers to those problems should come from the political process, and voters engaged in next month's primaries and the November election should be weighing the candidates' plans (or lack of plans) for building the kind of education and quality of place policies that will bring our work force up to industry standards and protect and enhance the natural and man-made features that would bring more people to Maine.
Traditional economic development, where the state works with business to provide land or tax incentives, may still have a role, but so should land preservation and downtown redevelopment, which could attract and keep educated young workers who will in turn attract employers.
Building on existing assets is just as important as creating new avenues for growth in helping Maine's economy through this transition.
LeVert deserves credit for asking the right questions. It is not up to all of us to talk about which answers get us where we want to go.