The headline on the news release could have read: “Lawmaker asks state official to do his job.” The dispute involves an absurd situation: The state’s advocate for the forest product industry refused to meet with a federal team that came to Maine at the request of the state’s congressional delegation precisely to find ways to help Maine’s forest products industry.
Rosaire Pelletier, the governor’s liaison to the forest products industry, told the Morning Sentinel that he was only interested in working with the federal team if it focused on bringing new investment to the industry. Neither he nor any other state official met with the team during its time in Maine last week, prompting House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe to send out a news release pointing out the obvious — state officials should cooperate with the federal team.
Certainly, an infusion of capital would help the industry, but the Economic Development Assessment Team was in Maine because money isn’t the only solution, though nearly $4 million in federal funding targeting forest products was announced before the team’s visit. The team is also looking for new markets for Maine’s forest products as well as new products that could be made from Maine’s wealth of timber. Both are as important, especially in the long term, for stabilizing and perhaps growing this industry.
Even before the team’s visit, Gov. Paul LePage called the visit “another failed stimulus package” and said it would raise “false hope.”
LePage’s contempt for the federal government is no secret, but snubbing federal efforts to help an industry that the governor worked for and champions is foolish, as there is no single entity or solution that can revive it. In fact, the governor has blamed energy prices, taxes and, now, trade, for mill closures. The federal team, with state input, could and should address each of these and other concerns.
The team’s work may not produce results, although that is doubtful given the federal level of commitment. But given the industry’s continued decline, state officials should accept any assistance that is offered.
Ten Maine mills have closed in the last eight years. Employment in the forest products industry has been shrinking for years. Demand for most Maine-made paper products has declined. There are bright spots. New machines have been installed at the mill complex in Baileyville, which makes tissue, a type of paper that has not seen a decline in demand and research into using trees to create biofuels is promising.
In asking the Commerce Department for help, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King wrote about the widespread economic hardship caused by the state’s mill closures. “As these rural communities have repeatedly told us, they are in the midst of an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude, creating a situation requiring urgent action, heightened focus and new federal economic and workforce development resources,” the senators wrote to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker in March.
It is unconscionable that the LePage administration would essentially turn its back to families and communities left struggling by mill closures and downsizing.
The administration’s refusal to participate in the EDAT work is also a slap in the face of members of Maine’s congressional delegation who specifically asked for the assistance at the same time they expressed their concerns about the potential designation of a national monument in the Maine woods.
The request to have the team, which has only been mobilized 30 times, visit Maine was part of a list of requests from Sens. Collins and King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin as the White House considers designating more than 87,000 acres of land near Baxter State Park as a national monument. The request for federal assistance was a well-considered proactive move by the three. By snubbing its work, LePage has sent a message to these members of Congress that their efforts, which already have produced tangible results, are unwanted.
The team’s work is not done, so there is still time for LePage and his staff to join this needed effort.