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Politics

Maine Democrats Focus Economic Plan on Boosting Middle Class

AUGUSTA, Maine - Democrats in Augusta today unveiled a plan to develop the state's workforce. The plan focuses on training more Maine students for new technology jobs.

Party leaders, who are coming off an election year that saw Maine Democrats lose political ground, say they want to work across the aisle on an effort to make college more affordable. Republicans say they welcome cooperation from the Democrats, but say they're already working on their own plans.

Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves says Maine can no longer languish on the losing end of a national economic recovery that has failed to restore jobs to pre-recession levels. That brand of financial sluggishness, says Eves, has created a new "normal" for middle-class Mainers, who were once able to save money for their children's educations.

"Now, for too many middle-class families, a good year means not losing your job, barely keeping enough oil in the tank and being able to pay most of your bills," Eves said. "Middle-class families don't know what their futures hold - but they know it should be better."

To that end, Democrats in the House and Senate laid out the framework for their agenda in the upcoming legislative session. Eves says Democrats will meet with business leaders around the state to help flesh out the party's three major goals.

"The first is workforce development and job training, the second is keeping our kids local and attracting talented individuals from outside of the state so that people can achieve the American dream right here in Maine, and the third is making college and higher education more affordable," Eves said.

Maine is the oldest state in the nation, a status it is projected to maintain for years to come. Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond says an aging population and a dwindling workforce will spell disaster for Mainers in the years ahead, and that more must be done to attract younger people from out of state. One way to accomplish that, he says, is to get them to attend college here.

"It seems like all roads lead back to college or some sort of higher education training," Alfond says, "whether we're talking about the skills gap or ensuring that businesses get the trained workers they need, or if we're talking about how to recruit new and younger talent to Maine or if we're talking about a wage booster - all important steps in solving these challenges start with college that is affordable and attainable," Alfond said.

"It's unfortunate that the speaker and Sen. Alfond did not learn the lessons of the 2014 election," says Senate Republican floor  leader Garrett Mason. Mason says the Democratic plan is comprised of recycled talking points from the failed campaign of Mike Michaud, who lost his bid to unseat GOP Gov. Paul LePage.

Mason says LePage is already setting the agenda for turning Maine's economy around, with plans ranging from cutting welfare costs to promoting more affordable energy  to lowering business taxes.  

House Republican leader Ken Fredette says Democrats should take a more comprehensive approach to job creation rather than focusing on access to higher education.

"I'll tell you, quite frankly, up in my neck of the woods, it's also about people who want to be carpenters, they want to be electricians, they want to be beauticians and those are the jobs that are there," Fredette says. "So I don't think it's just this focus on a four-year college degree, or just getting some sort of medical degree."

Both parties are only in the formative stages of submitting more than 1,800 bills that will be printed in the weeks ahead.