• TRANSPORTATION

Turnpike traffic approaches record levels

Traffic volume on the Maine Turnpike is on track to exceed its pre-recession peak for the first time, indicating that the upcoming tourism season could be a strong one. Turnpike traffic, which has been increasing slowly since bottoming out in 2009 during the Great Recession, is poised this year to surpass the record set in 2007, according to officials at the Maine Turnpike Authority. From Jan. 1 through May 31 this year, nearly 28.3 million vehicles traveled on the toll road. The increase over the same period in 2007 was relatively tiny – about 57,000 vehicles, or 0.2 percent – but it comes despite the turnpike’s lackluster performance in January and February when a series of heavy snowstorms kept motorists off the state’s highways. Compared with the same period last year, passenger vehicle traffic was up 4.5 percent. The strongest month was May, when passenger vehicle traffic increased nearly 8 percent. Read the story.

• ECONOMY

Maine’s economy stuck in neutral

Maine’s economy barely grew in 2014, with the state’s output of goods and services edging up just 0.2 percent for the year, a performance both unexpected and unwelcome. The negligible growth, from $54.6 billion in 2013 to $55.8 billion in 2014, put Maine’s economic growth 47th in the country and last in New England, according to figures released Wednesday morning by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Last year, the national economy grew at a 2.2 percent rate and New England’s rate was 1.6 percent. Declines in construction, finance and insurance, real estate and non-durable goods manufacturing all figured significantly in Maine’s slow growth. Only management and the wholesale and retail trades grew relatively strongly during the year, although the latter two were slightly below national levels of growth. Adding to the bad news, the bureau also revised downward its GDP growth figures for Maine in 2013. Those figures show that Maine’s economy grew just 0.5 percent that year, a cut from the previous estimate of 0.9 percent, putting Maine at No. 40. Read the story.

AGRICULTURE

Egg shortage challenges restaurants, consumers

A shortage of eggs in some parts of the country caused by an outbreak of avian flu has started to affect Maine businesses and consumers through increased prices for eggs and the products that contain them. Wholesale prices for eggs at local restaurants have doubled in some cases. Proprietors have been reluctant to pass the increase onto customers, and say they are hopeful prices will come back down. The first avian influenza case was reported in Oregon in December 2014. Since then, the outbreak has affected 46 million chickens and turkeys, and forced the slaughter of more than 40 million egg-laying birds. The virus has not been detected in the Northeast, and the region is producing plenty of eggs. Read the story.

• FINANCE

Startup wins federal grant for foam board prototype

Revolution Research Inc., a company founded by a pair of University of Maine graduates, learned this week it will receive nearly $225,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop a new type of thermal insulation foam board. The grant is from the NSF’s competitive Small Business Technology Transfer program, and will allow the Orono-based company to develop a prototype of what Nadir Yildirim, one of the company’s founders, said will be the first 100 percent eco-friendly thermal insulation foam board that is also fire retardant and water resistant for the multibillion-dollar insulation market. While the pair has so far used UMaine’s lab facilities, the NSF grant will allow them to rent space and buy equipment for their own lab. It has a year to develop its prototype. If that goes well, it will be in the running for a Phase 2 grant of up to $750,000 to begin commercializing the product. Read the story.

Furniture owner ordered to make pension fund whole

A federal judge has ordered Timothy Seavey, owner of Seavey’s Furniture & Appliance Inc. in Windham, to pay more than $26,000 into an employee retirement fund after failing to deposit money withdrawn from his workers’ paychecks into the fund. The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed Dec. 17, 2014, by the U.S. Department of Labor, which said Seavey failed to deposit more than $16,000 of employee contributions into the company’s now-frozen individual retirement account plan from September 2009 to March 2011. In January, Seavey told the Press Herald that he did not challenge the basic premise of the lawsuit, but said the failure to transfer employees’ contributions into the IRA plan was a mix-up caused by another employee who was in charge of making the payments. Read the story.

Payday lender will offer payment plans

Payday lender ACE Cash Express Inc. will offer installment plans to borrowers who cannot repay their loans in full before the company closes down its two Maine locations in July, a state official said. That offer conflicts with the account of one borrower who contacted the Press Herald and said the lender did not offer him any installment-plan options. ACE, which has locations in Portland and Brunswick, recently told customers it no longer would offer payday loans, and that it was calling due all outstanding loans. Although the company did not return calls from the Press Herald, it informed the state Tuesday that it plans to exit the Maine market July 11. Read the story.

• LEGISLATURE

Lawmakers refuse to eliminate income tax

The Maine House of Representatives dealt another blow to Gov. Paul LePage’s crusade to get rid of Maine’s income tax Monday, voting along party lines to reject a constitutional amendment to eliminate the tax by 2020. The bill, drafted by LePage and sponsored by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport, was defeated after a lengthy debate that illustrated the vast divide between Democrats and Republicans on the tax issue. LePage has been campaigning to eliminate the state income tax, which generates about $1.7 billion in annual revenue, since he introduced his state budget proposal in January. The budget incorporated a major overhaul of the state’s tax system, including a steady reduction in the income tax – with an eye to eventually eliminating it. But lawmakers on the budget-writing committee balked at the plan, and when it became clear that the tax overhaul was not going to pass, LePage introduced a bill to hold a statewide referendum on eliminating the tax through a constitutional amendment. That measure, which the House rejected Monday, would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature and a simple majority vote at referendum to become law. Read the story.

Contractors raise alarm over stalled bonds

Representatives of Maine’s construction industry are getting worried that proposals to fund infrastructure and housing projects won’t make it onto this year’s November ballot. Industry leaders organized a news conference Thursday at a construction site in South Portland to argue the merits of pending bills that would allow the state to borrow as much as $250 million to improve roads and bridges, build affordable senior housing and upgrade stream crossings and drainage systems statewide. They argued that the money would jump-start the state economy, create jobs, provide vital shelter to seniors, make transportation safer, help the environment and boost tourism. The bond bills remain stalled along with more than $600 million in other bond requests while the Legislature deals with the state budget. Read the story.