Early recommendations from Gov. Janet Mills’ Maine Economic Recovery Committee focus on reopening schools, investing in broadband internet and financially supporting troubled industries.

The 39-member committee met Friday morning to discuss early findings of subcommittees tasked with examining how to support and revive the state’s different economic sectors.

An initial committee report is due July 15, but some items are too urgent to wait, said committee co-chair Josh Broder, CEO of technology firm Tilson in Portland.

“We have the difficult charge of planning for the economic recovery not necessarily knowing when the starting point will be,” Broder said. “We really need to focus on how we plan for recovery even though we don’t determine the public health decisions.”

Broder and co-chair Laurie Lachance, a former state economist and president of Thomas College, intend to submit refined recommendations for immediate action to the administration next week.

Wide-ranging recommendations included encouraging people to seek medical care for conditions unrelated to COVID-19, supporting low-income, homeless and immigrant Mainers, safely easing travel restrictions on tourists, allowing unemployed residents collecting jobless benefits to start or buy a business in lieu of searching for a job, and direct financial support to damaged industries, among others.

But two broad themes for economic recovery emerged from the discussion: resuming in-person instruction at primary and secondary schools and strengthening broadband internet service in Maine.

Larry Shaw, CEO of MMG Insurance in Presque Isle and chair of the manufacturing and natural resource-based industries subcommittee, said reopening school campuses and providing care for children and other dependents were critical means of supporting Maine’s workers and employers.

“In order for our workforce to get back to work, they must be assured their families are taken care of,” Shaw said.

University of New England President Jim Herbert, chair of the education and workforce subcommittee, said making sure there was in-person instruction in Maine schools this fall “should be the state’s top economic priority.”

“The school system and ability for children to attend school is critical for all sectors of the economy,” Herbert said.

Part of the $1.25 billion granted to Maine from the federal CARES Act should be used to help schools adjust classrooms and buildings, buy personal protective equipment and fund transportation, he said.

The Maine Department of Education said this month that it, not local school districts, would decide when students can return to school.

Expanding broadband internet service to parts of the state that lack adequate service also should be a priority, said Shaw and Betsy Biemann, CEO of Coastal Enterprises Inc. in Brunswick and chair of the innovation subcommittee.

There is an opportunity for Maine to market itself as a desirable place to live and work remotely, Biemann said.

The state can take advantage of “COVID-19 related trends, the broad acceptance of remote work as a viable or even preferable option, and the desire for many to live in a less dense and safer environment,” she said.

However, slow internet speeds in some parts of the state could make that transition difficult and inhibit education and commerce. Susan Corbett, founder and director of the National Digital Equity Center and chair of the infrastructure subcommittee, said broadband “needs to be a priority in economic recovery.”

She proposed using $60 million in CARES Act funding to develop a needs assessment and make grants for broadband expansion available by August.

A $15 million bond question to expand broadband service in rural Maine is on the July 14 state ballot.

It is unclear precisely what immediate recommendations will be submitted to state agencies next week. The Economic Recovery Committee’s initial July report will be followed by a long-term recovery strategy in December.

“This is extremely hard, what we’ve been asked to do, these are unprecedented challenges and we do not have time to find perfect solutions,” said Lachance, the committee co-chair. “We will never have perfect plans, but what this committee has done is put forward an extremely compelling set of recommendations that we can start to put to work now and have an impact.”


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