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Janet Mills’ Economic Plan Calls For ‘New Direction’ From GOP’s Status Quo

Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Janet Mills unveils her economic plan at Kennebec Technologies in Augusta on Tuesday.

Democratic candidate Janet Mills attempted to lay claim Tuesday to a key issue in the four-way race for governor — the economy. She presented a range of initiatives designed to encourage small-business growth while addressing Maine’s dearth of skilled workers and and its aging labor pool.

Mills unveiled her economic plan amid the din of milling machines and compressors at Kennebec Technologies in Augusta, a precision-manufacturing company that does contract work for the Department of Defense.

Her proposal includes overhauling and consolidating the state’s sprawling and confusing economic development bureaucracy, providing no-interest loans to businesses that hire more employees, rural workplace grants that convert abandoned downtown buildings into shared workspaces for companies and workers looking for high-speed internet access and tax incentives designed to repatriate Maine workers who have left the state seeking better jobs and higher wages.

Mills says the proposal targets the state’s economic weaknesses. But it also takes aim at what her campaign hopes is a key deficiency for her leading rival in the governor’s race, Republican Shawn Moody.

“Why would we want to continue to do things the same way we have been and expect any results? The answer is, we should not,” she says.

During the Republican primary, Moody fashioned himself as the keeper of LePage’s policy legacy.

LePage, who is term-limited and will leave office in January, has repeatedly championed a five-point reduction in the unemployment rate over nearly eight years. But the governor’s critics note that Maine’s post-recession recovery lags that of neighboring states in terms of median wage and job growth.

Last month, a report from the Maine Department of Labor painted a grim picture of the near future: Nearly zero job growth over the next eight years.

Mills pounced on the report then, and again on Tuesday, as she portrayed Moody as the standard bearer of LePage’s economic policy and a status quo that could diminish the state’s standing as a destination for young workers and new businesses.

“Here’s what they predicted: virtually zero job growth in our state. We cannot stand for that complete economic stagnation. And that’s after eight years after an allegedly pro-business administration,” she says.

Moody’s campaign wasted little time responding to Mills’ plan.

Brent Littlefield, a longtime political consultant to LePage who now works for Moody, said in a statement, “Nothing Mills can put on paper can help her escape her record of job-killing taxes and red tape.”

Moody is leaning heavily on his business experience, as well as a compelling story about starting his chain of auto body repair shops from virtually nothing as a teenager.

The Gorham native is also channeling LePage’s 2010 campaign promise of reducing regulatory red tape, as he did during an interview with Maine Public Radio earlier this year when he talked about what distinguished him from his GOP rivals.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of government for 40 years,” he said. “So I think that’s a big difference.”

The Gorham native has also touted that his 200 employees own about a third of his company through an employee stock ownership plan.

Mills sought to seize that issue, too.

Her plan would create low-interest financing through the state to help cut costs for companies — like Moody’s — who want to convert to employee ownership.

“This helps with bridge financing for the employees before they can get traditional financing,” she says.

Mills’ plan may provide a sharp contrast to her Republican rival, but he isn’t the only obstacle she faces in attempting to become the first woman elected governor of Maine. Independent candidates Terry Hayes and Alan Caron are also in the contest.

While available polls show that neither independent candidate has gained much traction so far, Mills will share a debate stage with them several times during the course of the campaign. And like Mills, both Caron and Hayes are outlining similar economic challenges facing the state.

In a recent interview with Maine Public Radio, Hayes highlighted unfilled jobs as a primary concern for employers.

“When we need to attract people to fill those positions if we’re going to be able to maintain and grow our economy and I think the way to do that is to make Maine the best state in the country to work in,” Hayes said.

Meanwhile, Caron, a Freeport resident and entrepreneur who holds a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has sharply criticized Democrats and Republicans for overpromising and underdelivering on economic policy.

He told Maine Public Radio earlier this month that the state needs to overhaul its antiquated tax code and end the practice of giving tax breaks and state-backed loans to businesses that don’t create jobs.

“I want to give tax breaks to people who actually create jobs,” he said, adding that the state spends about $500 million dollars each year on tax breaks for economic development programs. “Reward the people who are actually doing what you want. It’s a radically simple idea and we don’t do enough of it.”

In a statement, Caron described Mills’ plan as decent — a far cry from the “bold” and “transformative” superlatives used by her campaign. And he said Republicans in the Legislature would never fund Mills’ initiatives.

But Mills’ plan also appears to serves another purpose: to convince voters that the current Maine economy isn’t good enough and would remain so under Moody, if he were to take its reins as governor.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.