On His Last Day On The Job, Maine's Economic Development Chief Looks Back, And Ahead

Jun 22, 2018

Friday is the last official day on the job for Maine Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais. He's been at his post a record seven years, and he shared lessons learned on the job with Maine Public’s Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

GRATZ: Welcome commissioner. Well, seven-and-a-half years, but who's counting? When you became commissioner in 2011 did you have any specific goals in mind for the department?

GERVAIS: It's very easy to align with what Gov. LePage wanted out of that department: He wanted businesses to get assistance, he wanted them to have an easy time navigating the maze that is state government. So those goals are pretty easy. I think the most interesting one was the economic development strategy for the state. Other organizations are also charged with coming up with that strategy. And the governor was right on - the focus needed to be on fixing the foundation, the economic foundation if you will - that an economic development strategy is built upon. And we've had cracks in that foundation that's been falling apart for a while.

GRATZ: So what were some of those cracks?

GERVAIS: Tax reform, cost of doing business, the regulatory issues.  The focus hasn't been - over the past several decades - on economic development. Everyone wants to, you know, raise their hands and yell "Charge!" on economic development issues, yet the department shrunk under every other administration except for this one.  Now, the only way to grow it is to grow our economy, because nobody's budget was going to increase during this administration. We were looking to keep things reined in.

GRATZ:  The LePage administration has been pushing to lower business tax rates. Are there any businesses that have come here or expanded, that you know, because of success in beginning to lower tax rates?

GERVAIS: Well, at the same time we're pursuing lower tax rates, we have to recall that we've got a program that is being dealt with this week in the Legislature to continue it, which simulates a lower tax rate, and in my opinion, it has always proven the fact that we need it across the board. And that's the Pine Tree Development Zones program. If we had the tax environment that we've been pursuing for the past seven-and-a-half years I don't think we'd need the Pine Trees Zones program. There's been, know, probably $500 million, $600 million worth of investment just in 2018 because of it.

GRATZ: You know, it's funny you should mention Pine Tree Zones because that's where I was going next - the program that originated in the Baldacci administration that has continued and expanded in the last several years. As you know, OPEGA and some legislators have raised some questions about how effective the program has been. So what's your response to that?

GERVAIS: I just think it's mischaracterized.  The OPEGA report that I think you're referring to - it failed to interview the companies that use it. And, wow, you're missing a big piece of the puzzle there when you're not talking to those who are benefiting from it.

GRATZ:  Have there ever been any times when you disagreed with the governor on economic development policy? Or are you guys in perfect sync?

GERVAIS: (laughs) I'd say there have been areas of disagreement. There certainly have been - not big ones or I probably wouldn't have made it seven-and-a-half years.

GRATZ:  On a policy level, are there any things that your successor should pursue?

GERVAIS: The Growth Council - the Economic Growth Council. The challenge there is there's got to be that trifecta of the Senate president, speaker of the House, and the governor agreeing on every single appointee to that council since it was charged with becoming a council. They have not produced an economic development strategy to date.  The Measures of Growth report- that is a measurement against a strategy that doesn't exist. You've still got that issue of getting agreement. So let's see how this election turns out.

GRATZ: But what you're saying is that one of the things that’s really needed is a more coherent and unified strategy.

GERVAIS:  Yes, some agreement on that and some realization that what the governor - Gov. LePage - has pursued is real, those foundational fixes. Those repairs, they really still need to be pursued. It's not done yet.

GRATZ: George Gervais, thank you very much. Good luck.

GERVAIS: Thank you.