The Maine Center for Economic Policy recently released its annual “State of Working Maine” report, which concludes that “policymakers must focus on stabilizing employment and putting more money in the pockets of working Mainers.”

It reminded me of a famous optical illusion that, depending on your perspective, could be interpreted either as a young woman looking over her shoulder or an old woman huddled deep in her fur coat.

No matter how you wish to deal with Maine’s poor economy, the starting point is the same.

High-wage manufacturing jobs have been replaced by low-wage service jobs. The state’s economy has grown at a slower rate than the nation’s over the past eight years. State and local government spending is $2,000 higher per capita than in the more prosperous state of New Hampshire.

The ideal solution to these challenges is the same: find more money. We have to decide, though, if that money is going to come from an expanding economy with more private-sector jobs or from higher taxes to pay for larger public subsidies.

The economic policy center report advocates five changes to improve the economic security of Maine citizens.

Property tax relief

The center wants the state to maintain the circuit breaker program that subsidizes property taxes for low- and middle-income homeowners and renters.

It’s a great program but can we continue to pay for its current cost? Maine already passed a law intended to pay for 55 percent of the cost of local education, thus reducing the need for high property taxes.

To date, the state has never been able to fulfill its obligation, and property owners haven’t seen any appreciable reduction in their taxes.

Perhaps we have more of a spending problem than a revenue problem. Different views of the same problem.

Index the minimum wage

The policy center report calls for the state’s minimum wage to keep pace with wage growth.

This seems reasonable except that it removes any public discussion or accountability when deciding what employers must pay their employees.

Maine’s minimum wage already is higher than the national average and slated to go even higher. How much is enough and how much is too little? That’s worth a public debate, not an automatic raise.

Mandatory paid sick leave

Though this proposal recently was defeated by the Legislature, the issue is not going away. The economic policy center, the Maine Women’s Lobby and other interest groups see this one-of-kind law in Maine as a groundbreaking policy that would provide job and income security.

Employers see it as a back-breaking mandate for which they will be forced to foot the bill.

More and higher mandated costs for small business owners mean they will have to charge higher prices, be less competitive, reduce employee wages and benefits and create fewer jobs.

From education to infrastructure

Maine spends 25 percent more than the national average for educating K-12 students despite a loss of enrollment and falling test scores.

Health care as a percentage of gross state product is the second-highest in the nation and we have the highest percentage of citizens on Medicaid.

It seems that money is not the issue but rather how it is spent.

When it comes to energy efficiency, wouldn’t it make more sense to offer tax credits rather than creating an expensive bureaucracy and a legion of new government employees?

Finally, most can agree on the value of public works projects such as road repair and wastewater treatment. Remember, though: If we build it, we assume the cost to operate it, maintain it and replace it.

Tie tax credits to ‘quality jobs’

The policy center report says business tax credits should be awarded only to companies that provide “quality jobs.” It would be great to have nothing but low-impact, hi-tech employers in Maine, but why should employers who remove their waste or dig in the dirt have any less advantage in creating jobs?

If public policy discriminates between fashionable “green” jobs and pedestrian “brown” jobs, the government heads down a very slippery slope of picking winners and losers.

What this report fails to address is where the money will come from to pay for the Maine Center for Economic Policy’s view of shared prosperity.

Each of the five recommendations calls for either the same or more public spending or implies that Maine businesses will assume the costs and responsibility for implementing public policy.

That’s where two views of the same problem emerge: Is Maine’s future a young woman looking toward the horizon of a new day or is it an elderly pensioner ever more dependent on others for a subsidy? What picture do you see and what are you willing to do about it?

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on the effects of public policy on the state’s economy. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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