For 22 years, the Maine Economic Growth Council has issued a report optimistically called “Measures of Growth.” As this year’s version highlights, the annual publication would be more aptly named Measures of Stagnation.
The group annually assesses Maine’s progress — or lack thereof — in 25 areas ranging from education to housing to job creation. In its report, the group gives gold stars in areas where Maine exceeds benchmarks and red flags in those where the state is consistently falling behind. This year, the report gave three gold stars — for the state’s cost of doing business, air quality and water quality.
But even the apparent good news wasn’t all positive. The cost of doing business decreased from 2000 to 2013 and was below all New England states except Rhode Island. But it is still nearly 10 percent higher than the national average and, thus, nowhere close to being on track to reach the national average by 2020 — the benchmark suggested in the Measures of Growth report.
Three of this year’s five red flags were for education-related measures: fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade math and post-secondary education attainment. The percentage of Maine adults with two- or four-year college degrees rose slightly, from nearly 36 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2014. But this still lags the New England average of 46 percent, which is the benchmark the council hopes the state will reach in four years.
The benchmark for reading and math scores is 50 percent proficiency among Maine students by 2020. Last year, though, 36 percent of Maine fourth graders were proficient in reading, and 35 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Both exceed the national average but lag the New England average.
Maine appeared to be making progress in only three of the 25 areas highlighted in Measures of Growth — employment, housing affordability and international exports. Maine lost ground in eight areas and saw no significant progress in nine. The Maine Economic Growth Council didn’t grade the remainder.
But again, even the good news about Maine’s progress was tempered. For example, while the number of jobs in Maine has grown, the workforce has not, leaving employers scrambling to fill jobs. The shrinking workforce also makes it difficult for Maine to attract new businesses.
Of most concern, Maine is lagging in what the Maine Development Foundation’s Ryan Neale termed “big picture indicators.” The state’s gross domestic product declined between 2009 and 2014, while that of the U.S. grew by more than 9 percent. New England’s GDP rose nearly 6 percent in that time. Per capita income in the Pine Tree State grew more slowly than the national and New England averages from 2009 to 2014.
The council long ago set a goal of Maine’s research and development expenditures totaling 3 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. But Maine’s investment has been stuck at 1 percent of GDP for years after increasing rapidly from about 0.5 percent in 1991. Maine’s R&D investment is well below the national average of 2.9 percent and even below the 1.7 percent investment in states identified by the National Science Foundation as needing federal support to build their R&D capacity.
In this and other areas, Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, sees reason for optimism. The Legislature this year approved a $50 million bond for research and development, reaffirmed the need for K-12 students to reach proficiency in all academic standards (although it relaxed the timeline for schools to get there) and passed a tax conformity measure that involved boosting education funding. Gov. Paul LePage signed all three measures.
The council’s annual report doesn’t reveal any surprises. Instead, it offers a roadmap that should guide investment and policy decisions in order to help the state move out of its economic doldrums. Maine has taken small steps, but without bold plans to grow the state’s workforce and dramatically increase R&D spending and activity, expect stagnation to be the theme of next year’s report as well.