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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Maine is a difficult place to do business. This difficulty hampers economic growth and drives folks from the state. The problem is reaching crisis levels and Augusta needs to respond.
It is a familiar tale applied to countless challenges. Our populace problems are one. With the new census data, Maine’s population growth lagged far behind the nation to leave us in 42nd place for the percentage of population change.
By median age, we’re the oldest state in the Union.
It is pretty hard to improve the economy when your population isn’t really growing but it is continually aging. In academic circles, this is called a “demographic winter.” It isn’t pretty.
Nevertheless, hope can often be found in unlikely places. The COVID pandemic is one.
Thousands of folks “from away” flocked to Maine to ride out the proverbial storm. Home prices and sales have skyrocketed. This presents some challenges in the near term as our planning boards and homebuilders try to catch up to the demand.
However, as long as we don’t mess it up with silly tax policy, many of these new residents might find Maine the ideal place to both live and work. Which can help grow both our economy and our communities.
A lot of these jobs are virtual. They can be done from Raymond, Rangely or Roque Bluffs with a strong enough internet connection. As long as these folks can also access physical transportation infrastructure — whether airports in Portland or Bangor, or a strong road system — to meet in person when necessary, they would be able to stay here longer term.
Which means new property, sales and income tax revenue. And local purchases from stores and farms. And volunteers in the local school. In short, it means that our demographic winter can give way to a new spring.
But there is a weak link in this equation. It hampers our economic growth and could drive these new residents away before they set down roots.
It’s broadband internet. More specifically, the lack thereof.
Gov. Janet Mills and GOP state Sen. Rick Bennett joined forces this week to offer legislation to address this issue. In short, they would take a big chunk of the federal money sent to Maine for COVID response and use it to supercharge a government agency, refashioning it as the “Maine Connectivity Authority.”
It is a bold proposal.
That said, and as always, our history can be instructive. In the early 1990s, Maine was a difficult place to do business. It hampered our economic growth, reaching a crisis level. Augusta had to respond.
Back then, it was a disaster in our workers’ compensation system. We were in a death spiral, with insurance companies refusing to offer coverage in the state. Those that stayed in the market sought a 30 percent rate hike. It was a problem that finally came to a head, and led to the first-ever state shutdown as Gov. Jock McKernan vetoed the budget to force action.
It was a bumpy road, but it ultimately led to MEMIC. A customer-owned insurance company that has been lauded for its efficiency and service. Whether you ask former governors McKernan, Angus King, John Baldacci or Paul LePage, MEMIC is a Maine-grown success story.
It is an example worth looking at as Mills and the Maine Legislature consider their efforts to improve broadband capacity throughout the state. The best way forward needn’t — and probably shouldn’t — be an expanded government agency.
Because we’ve overcome challenges to our economic vitality before. And today, we’re pretty average when it comes to workers’ compensation insurance rates.
In this scenario, it’s a good place to be.