AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s unemployment rate continued its steady slide downward in February, a trend that Republican Gov. Paul LePage said is indicative of a strengthening economy.

Democrats shot back that LePage is choosing to ignore that Maine’s job growth since the recession lags behind national averages.

“It’s out of touch for Gov. LePage to be bragging about these numbers,” said Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland. “The governor has rejected and held up the very proposals that would help Maine workers and businesses and as a result we’ve had three years of anemic job growth.”

Among LePage’s actions cited by Alfond was the governor’s decision to stall the issuance of voter-approved bonds twice during his first term. Regardless, there’s no question the state’s jobs situation is improving.

Department of Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette said Friday that Maine’s unemployment rate for February was 6.1 percent, which means about 6,000 more of the state’s residents were working than a year ago. In addition, Paquette said the number of employed Mainers stood at 61.5 percent, the highest since December 2008, when a financial crisis and recession were beginning to put people out of work across the country.

Maine is doing well compared to national averages and the other New England states. Approximately 59 percent of the U.S. population reported having a job in February and the overall unemployment rate ticked up slightly from January to 6.7 percent.

Estimated unemployment in New England stood at 6.4 percent, ranging from a low of 3.7 percent in Vermont to a high of 9 percent in Rhode Island. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Maine is the only New England state during the past year to record a statistically significant unemployment rate change, down by 0.8 percent. A total of 24 states and the District of Columbia reported significant unemployment rate changes since January 2013, all of which were declines.

Paquette said the rise in private-sector jobs was largely attributable to the retail sector, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, education, health care and finance and insurance services. Those gains were partially offset by a decline of 1,100 jobs in government.

“Maine’s economy not only is recovering, but is getting stronger every month,” said LePage in a prepared statement. “This is good news for Maine families and our economy as a whole. Furthermore, this is evidence that pro-jobs, pro-growth, low-tax policies work to help businesses create jobs in our state.”

LePage has made job creation a priority of his first term — and a focal point of his re-election campaign. In addition to a steady decrease in the unemployment rate, his administration and campaign have touted the fact that a higher percentage of Maine’s population is working.

In the past, Democrats have assailed LePage for the state’s low ranking nationally in terms of job creation during his tenure as governor, an argument they continued on Friday. They said Maine’s rural areas are lagging far behind the Bangor, Portland and Lewiston-Auburn areas in job creation and that Maine ranks 48th out of the 50 states in job growth between January 2011 and September 2013.

“Unfortunately we still are at the back of the pack with respect to the rest of the nation,” said House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. “While the latest figures are certainly good news, month to month they really speak more to the national recovery. We are riding the coattails of the national recovery and we are not recovering as fast. … There are parts of the state that still have astronomically high unemployment rates.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.