Maine is a small business state. Compared to other places, more of our businesses are small, and more of our workers are employed by small businesses. In fact, nearly 90 percent of Maine companies employ fewer than 20 people.
As a small business owner who owns a restaurant/bowling alley that employs 22 people, I know firsthand the challenges and enjoyment that come with making payroll each week. I know how much effort it takes to grow a business in Maine and how good it feels to watch that investment help one’s community.
Two years ago, when I was elected president of the Maine Senate, my Democratic colleagues and I made economic growth the top priority of our legislative work. We put forward an agenda to help small businesses create good-paying jobs for Maine people:
— Democrats created a special committee focused exclusively on solving the “skills gap” to ensure that Maine workers have the skills that Maine businesses need. This committee has been praised for its work, which included creating a scholarship program for adult learners who were unable to finish their college degrees, significantly easing the process of transferring credits between Maine community colleges and universities, and expanding the “industry partnerships” focus of state agencies to align worker training programs with one another and with the needs of workers and businesses.
— We championed a small business bond package which, if approved by voters this November, funds two successful small business loan guarantee programs through FAME.
— Democrats funded the Seed Capital program, which provides a tax credit to people who invest in Maine’s small businesses. This program has provided over $4 million to nearly 120 Maine businesses since its creation.
— We passed a new law that makes it easier for entrepreneurs and startups to raise money from investors. This initiative costs the state no money; it simply modified regulations to make it easier to grow a business in Maine.
— We made substantial investments in energy efficiency programs for small businesses. This, too, required no taxpayer money. Federal funds from the decommissioning of the nuclear power plant in Wiscasset will be used to help hundreds of Maine’s businesses cut energy costs.
— And, because we know that an educated workforce is key to our long-term economic success, Democrats passed a variety of education initiatives, including funding for Head Start and pre-K programs — both of which were wholeheartedly endorsed by business organizations such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
I’m proud of these accomplishments because they will help Maine’s small businesses. It’s a simple formula: If our small businesses are growing, more Maine people have jobs and can earn a livable wage. As both a small business owner and an elected official, I know that the biggest challenge Maine faces is economic growth. In fact, so many of our challenges, from poverty to health care to the tax code, would be solvable if we have a strong, growing economy.
The accomplishments of the last two years are made more noteworthy because of the obstructionism of Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies. LePage vetoed or refused to sign every one of these initiatives, not because they won’t help our economy (they will) and not because they cost too much money (they don’t), but because of politics.
Their obstructionism has serious consequences to our economy. The last four years have been a setback: The rest of the country has recovered more than all of the jobs lost since the recession. Maine is still 12,000 jobs short, and we rank 42nd in private sector job growth. A startling example of Republican politics hurting Maine’s small business economy is Statoil, a global clean energy company that had inked an agreement with the state Public Utilities Commission to build a first-of-its-kind offshore wind turbine. LePage, aided by Senate Republican Leader Mike Thibodeau, passed a law that canceled the agreement. Then, Statoil pulled out of Maine and invested $2.5 billion in a project in the U.K., costing Maine hundreds of jobs.
Democrats in the state Legislature have a different view of how to grow our economy. Instead of digging in to political ideology, we want to help Maine’s small businesses grow our economy. This work isn’t always glamorous, and it doesn’t always fit into sound bites. But, as the Senate president, I’m proud of the positive steps we have taken during the last two years. And as a small business owner, I know that we have a lot more work to do.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is president of the Maine Senate.