Lodging sales break $1 billion in banner year across industry

Maine’s hospitality industry reached new revenue highs last year, bringing in $3.8 billion as the state continued to attract more tourists. Lodging sales broke the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2017, increasing 7 percent from the year before, according to Maine Revenue Services sales records. Maine restaurants brought in nearly $2.8 billion, a 4 percent increase from 2016. The number of tourists reached 36 million in 2016, and 2017 will likely show strong growth again, according to early estimates. Roughly 1 million more people visited Maine during last year’s summer season, and overnight stays jumped about 8 percent, according to an estimate by DPA, a Portland-based research firm that studies tourism trends for the state. Read the story.


Verso posts $30 million loss in 2017, but expects turnaround

Verso Corp. reported a $30 million net loss in 2017, but expects sales to improve this year thanks, in part, to increased production of specialty products at its paper mill in Jay. The company had a “difficult start” to 2017, but had a strong turnaround in the second half of the year and is in a better cash position than before, CEO Christopher DiSantis said during an investor call Thursday. Overall revenue was $2.4 billion, off 7 percent from the year before, because of lower sales volume and idling the No. 3 paper machine at the Androscoggin mill in Jay at the beginning of 2017. That machine is being retrofitted to produce specialty paper, and the Jay mill is also launching some new product lines. Those changes are expected to contribute to stronger sales in 2018. The Jay mill employs about 400 people, but another 120 are expected to be hired once the No. 3 machine begins operating. Read the story.


Sweeping changes to medical pot rules gets committee endorsement

Maine’s medical marijuana program would undergo sweeping changes under a bill approved Wednesday by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. The bill, approved by an 11-2 vote, would increase patient access to medical marijuana by allowing medical providers to certify an adult patient for any medical reason; give registered caregivers the ability to serve more patients, hire more workers and sell out of storefronts; and let dispensaries shed their nonprofit status to better compete in the marketplace. The number of dispensary licenses would increase from eight to 14. The bill must still go before the full Legislature for approval. Read the story.


Retailer group joins suit for collection of online sales taxes

The Retail Association of Maine is backing South Dakota against a lawsuit challenging that state’s efforts to collect sales taxes on online purchases made by state residents.

The association filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of South Dakota in the lawsuit being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state passed a law in 2016 requiring sales taxes be collected on state residents’ internet purchases, but several online retailers, including Wayfair and, filed suit to challenge it. A total of 36 states and the District of Columbia have asked the Supreme Court to revisit online sales tax collections, and last year, the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, agreed to collect sales taxes even in states in which it had no physical presence. The Maine retail association estimates the state loses out on $40 million annually from untaxed online purchases. Read the story.


Pine Tree Zone measure moves forward

A bill to extend the life of a sometimes controversial program that has created hundreds of tax havens for businesses in Maine is gaining traction in the Legislature. The measure, which keeps Pine Tree Development Zones in place for at least the next three years, was endorsed Tuesday by the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, but it will face additional votes in the Legislature before possibly going to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature. The bill contains additional reporting requirements for the estimated 200 businesses that benefit from the program statewide. The underlying law provides qualifying businesses with tax benefits, including income tax credits and sales tax exemptions on the purchase of business equipment, in exchange for the promise of new jobs. It is set to expire at the end of 2018. The program has been the subject of two reviews that showed the benefits help business, but at a high cost to taxpayers. Read the story.

 Legislative panel backs tax breaks for BIW

A legislative committee voted Tuesday to give Bath Iron Works $60 million in tax incentives as long as the company maintains current employment levels and invests at least $200 million in the shipyard. After weeks of discussion and fine-tuning, members of the Taxation Committee voted 8-2 in support of a bill that BIW officials said will help the company compete for Navy contracts. The controversial proposal will allow BIW to receive up to $3.5 million in tax credits – with the total not to exceed $60 million over 20 years – but would scale back those incentives if employment fell below 5,500 workers or eliminate them if the company fails to invest $200 million. The bill continues to face opposition from individuals and lawmakers who regard it as “corporate welfare” to a shipyard owned by one of the world’s largest defense contractors, General Dynamics. Read the story.

New program directs tax breaks to investors in low-income areas

Gov. Paul LePage has less than three weeks to select a handful of communities that could benefit from a little-known economic development program tucked into the sprawling Republican tax overhaul passed last year. Under the tax law, governors can designate “opportunity zones” in a limited number of low-income areas where investors will receive significant tax breaks by directing their capital gains into businesses or real estate. Some analysts think it has the potential to inject much-needed cash into economically distressed communities, but critics say that similar programs have failed to attract investment and characterize the program as a giveaway to wealthy Americans. Under the tax bill, Maine can designate up to 31 of its low-income Census tracts as opportunity zones. Investors can reinvest capital gains – profits from the sale of investments – in opportunity zones through a mechanism called opportunity funds and realize significant tax savings. Read the story.


Lawmakers still seek fix for problematic unemployment claims system

Mainers from across the state on Wednesday joined in a town-hall-style conference call, in which they berated the state’s recently unveiled filing system for unemployment benefits. The tele-town hall conference call comes a day after a legislative committee initially deadlocked on reporting out a bill to the House but on Wednesday reached a majority that contained a provision allowing claimants to file their work search histories by phone or in person, a step in the claims process that had befuddled many and left them without benefits. At its peak, there were about 800 people on the line. Included in the bill is the requirement that the department allow claimants to file their work search histories by phone or in person. The new system permits claimants to file the work search only online, which can be problematic for Mainers living in rural areas without access to computers, or older residents who can’t use computers. Read the story.

Talks expected to continue between Hannaford, distribution workers

Negotiators have not reached a deal to end a contract dispute at the South Portland distribution center for Hannaford supermarkets. Talks were held Tuesday in Portland between United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445 and Delhaize America Distribution. Both sides agreed to meet again, although there has been no date set. Workers want the company to address high health insurance costs, and to pull back a proposed pay cut on new hires. More than 240 workers are represented by UFCW 1445 at the Hemco Road distribution center. They rejected the company’s final contract offer Feb. 17 and authorized a strike. The next week, workers walked off the job in a 24-hour strike ahead of negotiations. The distribution center supplies 103 Hannaford supermarkets in New England, including 63 stores in Maine. Read the story.