The right response to job loss in legacy businesses is helping new industries grow.
As if it weren’t bad enough to hear that the Madison Paper Industries plant would shut down in May, putting 214 people out of work, Gov. LePage made it worse: Five years into the job, Maine’s chief executive showed again that he doesn’t understand the state’s economic problems and has no plan to deal with them.
In a statement issued by his office on March 14, LePage acknowledged the plummeting demand for the supercalendered paper produced in Madison, which is the company’s stated reason for shutting down its operation. Then, he rolled out his standard medicine for every illness: lower taxes for “job creators,” reduced energy costs and “providing a welcoming atmosphere for businesses and capital investment.”
It was a stunning display of cluelessness. Could the governor really think that cutting or even eliminating income taxes for high-wage earners would have had any effect on decision-makers in a multinational corporation who may never set foot in Maine, let alone file a tax return here? Could he really believe that Maine, with no coal, oil or gas reserves, could ever lower its electric rates to compete with places where those resources exist?
And by a “welcoming atmosphere for business and capital investment” is he referring to the way he has stiff-armed attempts to grow the state’s clean-energy sector, closing the door on investment and local jobs that can’t be sent overseas?
If the governor understood how to help “job creators,” he wouldn’t be trying to kill a new solar energy policy that is under debate in the Legislature.
The plan is projected to create 800 new jobs over the next five years through incentives to boost solar power capacity in the state by a factor of 12. Even aside from the environmental benefits of solar energy, that’s a good deal for Maine.
The governor may not see it that way because this does not look like a traditional economic development opportunity. The investors are not Wall Street speculators but home and business owners who want to cut their energy costs. The “job creators” are not wealthy CEOs from other states but local contractors who would hire help to meet the demand for solar installations.
There may not be a groundbreaking ceremony outside a new factory, but instead there would be steady growth of small businesses all over the state, which would start right away.
And that is the kind of job growth that Maine desperately needs. Rather than wait for the next paper industry to decide to move here, Maine should be helping businesses get started and grow. Expanding solar power is one way to do that.
The solar bill is the result of a six-month collaboration between utilities, solar installers, environmental groups and the state’s public advocate, who represents ratepayers at the Public Utilities Commission.
If passed, it would create a mechanism for owners of solar panels to sell the excess power they generate when the sun is shining, giving them a credit to offset their bills for what they use when the sun is down.
About half of the new solar installations would be on houses and small businesses. The rest would be distributed between group solar farms, jointly owned by people who can’t install solar panels on their own property; installations on shopping malls, factories and other large buildings; and grid-scale arrays strategically placed around the state that would put power into the system where it is most needed during peak-demand summer months, making the grid more reliable for everyone.
But when the Legislature heard the bill last week, LePage threw a monkey wrench into the works through his Republican allies.
Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, who had participated in the stakeholder group, said lawmakers should not address the issue at all, kicking it over to the Public Utilities Commission, which is made up of LePage appointees.
If the PUC gets to decide the matter, it could not only kill the expansion proposal but end the existing incentive program known as net-metering, risking the 330 jobs in the solar panel installation business that exist now as well as the 800 potential new jobs.
Lawmakers from both parties should not let LePage lead them into this terrible mistake.
The mill workers in Madison don’t need lower income tax rates or cheaper electricity. They need jobs.
Maine won’t get them by begging private equity investors and multinational corporations to come here and save us.
The state should commit to creating an environment where the industries of the future can grow, and a commitment to do that should have been the governor’s response to the bad news from Madison.