Times Record: Branding Maine (March 11, 2014)

Gov. Paul LePage chose Brunswick Landing to unveil his “Open For Business Zones” plan Monday in an appearance long on campaign themes, short on particulars; long on anecdotes, short on evidence.

But we’d be remiss not thanking the governor for choosing Brunswick, Maine’s most dynamic local economy, to announce his plan. We had taken him to task in this space several weeks ago for missing the good things going on at the ex-base. It was genuinely good to see Gov. LePage here Monday.

The governor is also to be praised for continuing a laser focus on business development, and for having a plan, even if the results so far have been paltry and perhaps as owable to federal policies of the Obama administration.

Three and a half years into his administration, energy costs, red tape and weak access to capital continue to harm Maine’s business climate, even as the governor has hammered these themes, as he did again Monday. That’s probably because some of the tenets have already been rejected here or debunked elsewhere.

For example, the emphasis on creating zones for businesses to enhance their leverage against labor unions is viciously misguided.

The label “right to work” describes proposals that limit workers’ rights and make it sound like new jobs are a guaranteed result. They aren’t. Employers can shed certain rules regarding union fees and dues and profit on lower wages for laborers, but there’s no real evidence of, or incentive for, dramatic job growth. So a fight against labor won’t create a booming economy. Probably the opposite is true — both in terms of the numbers employed, and the wages they are earn. Ask Wisconsin.

We need independent measurement of how many jobs would be created in these zones because of the rule. Study the wages paid to those employed in these zones, and compare with wages in unionized areas. Then make a sober assessment as to whether unions are really the problem.

Maine’s laborers are underpaid compared to the rest of the nation, but incomes actually are slowly rising. According to a national multi-year University of New Mexico analysis, we were 28th in the nation in per-capita income in 2012, up from 36th in 1996, and no real “right to work” measure was in place to cause the rise. Indeed, high wages are not the problem. They’re the solution. Cutting rights for workers is not the way to help people prosper.

On LePage’s plan for tax breaks, offering  job-targeted corporate income tax cuts makes sense; our corporate rates range from 3.5 to 8.93 percent, and are at the high end nationally. TIFs are a tool we feel has been overused, but as proposed, make sense here as one piece of a larger puzzle. The financing piece — up to $400,000 in borrowed funds — only goes to those providing 150 jobs and $50 million in investment and sets a deliberately high bar.

Companies decide where to locate based on a range of factors — some in which Maine does well; others, not. But Maine is not the worst state to locate a business, no matter what Fortune magazine has to say.

If we bang the drum that our energy is too expensive and our work force is aging and our infrastructure is horrible, guess what?

Saying we are a legacy manufacturing state with abundant natural resources and an experienced work force with a relatively afforable quality-of-life tells a different story.

The buzzword is “brand.” Maine’s business recruiters have to do a better job marketing our people and assets, to extol all Maine’s New Economy advantages: manufacturing, specialty agriculture, food processing, tidal, solar, wind and biomass energy, potable water — all things the world needs that Maine has in abundance.

This stubborn insistence to blame workers and the poor for a lagging economy is the wrong kind of “branding” for Maine and a needless distraction from a broader analysis of the costs and benefits of doing business here.


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