March 6, 2013

GEORGE SMITH: Legislature just needs to recycle economic analysis done in 2008

George Smith

Economically, Maine peaked in the 1850s. We have never been as prosperous since that time. Today, yet another committee is working to -- well, to put Mainers back to work.

The Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future already has compiled six pages of recommendations and suggestions. But haven't we been there before?

Actually, yes we have. In 2008 the Maine Development Foundation issued its report: Maine's Investment Imperative II: Unleashing the Potential. You will not be surprised to learn that we have not yet unleashed our potential. At least, we hope not.

Hundreds of experts and more than 1,000 business leaders contributed to the 2008 report designed to "identify key strategies to create an environment where Maine businesses will invest and grow Maine's economy."

The report outlined both demographic and economic "imperatives." Some must sound familiar to the members of the new committee, including "align higher education and training with job needs." Or how about this one: "Embrace innovation and entrepreneurism as an economic growth strategy." I thought at the time that the report and recommendations were outstanding. And now, we try again.

Certainly, it would be smart to revisit the 2008 recommendations, but it also might be wise to look back a bit further.

I would provide each committee member with William David Barry's new history book: "Maine: The Wilder Half of New England," published in 2012 by Tilbury House in Gardiner.

The book is chock-a-block full of interesting -- and sometimes amazing -- facts about our state. Here are just a few. "In the first six years of statehood, Maine fisheries provided one-fifth of the nation's tonnage employed in fisheries."

Today, our commercial fisheries fleet is vastly diminished.

In the 1850s, Maine sold half the potatoes available in the United States.

By 1990, there were thirty-five paper mills in Maine, the most in the nation, and in 1914 the pulp and paper industry replaced textiles as the state's largest industry.

I was fascinated to learn about the Legislature's 1909 enactment of Fernald's law, particularly given a recent legislative hearing.

Last week, the Legislature, heard a bill forbidding any trees on lots that benefit from the tree growth tax law from being exported from the state without something of value being added.

Fernald's law "forbade the export of electrical power beyond state lines." This was apparently a strategy to force industries that wanted our electricity to locate within the state. Hmmmm.

Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was formed in 1850, as our "forests, fields and streams attracted a new class: the sportsman." Teddy Roosevelt came of age in Maine, hunting and fishing with Maine guide Bill Sewall. Today, this is very much an industry in decline.

Given our desperation to save Maine's farms, how about this observation from a resident of Greene in 1874: "Within sight of my home are nine empty farm houses. They are comfortable, tasty residences on good, productive farms."

According to Barry, "the owners had vacated them for the West or more lucrative jobs in factories in the cities. Millions of acres of improved land returned to woods between 1865 and 1914."

Noted novelist Kenneth Roberts' "hatred of the 'Vacationland' syndrome and its by-products led to his call, in 1930, for citizens to 'go forth with rope and grappling irons and tear the offending billboards down." The billboards are gone but vacations are now the state's leading industry.

As the Legislature debates Maine's crushing tax burden, I noted, "In 1923, the Legislature approved a one-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline." Boy, we can't trust 'em to hold the line, can we?

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