Our avowedly pro-business governor, Paul LePage, has attracted plenty of attention while battling with Democrats who control the Legislature, and sometimes with fellow Republicans, too.
But governors standing for re-election are judged at least as much for their handling of the economy as for any specific legislation. And on this account, LePage supporters might want to avert their eyes.
Since LePage took office 30 months ago, Maine’s economic performance has been lackluster – and that’s being charitable. In 2011, the state’s job growth was last in the nation among the 50 states. In 2012, it improved – to third worst.
But economies can grow without necessarily providing new jobs. The national economy began to climb last year, and Massachusetts led New England with a 2.2 percent growth rate. Maine, unfortunately, grew just 0.5 percent -- hard to distinguish from stagnation.
It’s not entirely fair, though, to judge a governor’s performance simply on the state of the economy, even if that’s the first thing voters look at. Decisions that involve a governor’s skills at recruitment of new and expanded businesses may be a better test.
The long, slow decline of Maine’s manufacturing base is the largest reason why it’s lagged other states in income growth, as high-paying blue collar jobs are replaced by much lower-paying service positions.
LePage has had two opportunities to win significant numbers of manufacturing jobs. The first came in 2011, when Kestrel Aircraft was preparing to launch production of a business-class jet after setting up an engineering department at Brunswick Landing. The project had symbolic importance – replacing the civilian jobs lost when the Brunswick Naval Air Station closed would be a high priority for any new administration.
LePage couldn’t close the deal. The 300-600 jobs a Kestrel plant would have provided are now headed to Superior, Wisc.
By most accounts, the administration’s approach to Kestrel was understaffed and poorly organized, but that wasn’t the key reason Maine lost. Wisconsin, with an array of municipal, county and state concessions, provided a much bigger package of goodies.
Kestrel may in fact be a bargain-hunter; its proposed groundbreaking in Superior has been delayed more than a year. So while it’s unfortunate the opportunity was lost, the responsibility doesn’t rest solely with the LePage administration.
The same cannot be said for the recent set-to with Statoil, the world’s largest producer of offshore wind turbines. Statoil has worked partly in collaboration, partly in competition, with the University of Maine, and both the Norwegian company and the Maine university are recipients of federal grants to test offshore turbines. There only seven grants, and no other state received two.
The two grantees are taking strikingly different approaches to a much larger federal grant to build full-size wind generators offshore. Statoil is using existing technology, with steel platforms and towers, in a new setting. The university is trying to leapfrog current models with an all-composite turbine mounted on a floating concrete base, which it believes will dramatically lower costs.
The university can proceed without reference to the market. Statoil, a for-profit company, cannot. Thus it sought, and received, a contract from the Public Utilities Commission to sell power from its turbines to Maine utilities, a $200 million, 20-year deal.
That’s when LePage got involved. Even though one of his own PUC appointees had voted for the contact, he decided it must be scuttled. He used the omnibus energy bill to make his case, but failed, and the bill was passed over his veto.
But he did manage to convince two veteran Democratic legislators, Rep. Barry Hobbins and Sen. John Cleveland, who co-chair the Energy Committee and who ought to have known better, to carve out the Statoil deal and reopen the bid process. That bill passed over the objections of Democratic House and Senate leaders.
Two days later, Statoil withdrew from its commitment.
Offshore wind is not just any old business opportunity. It may represent Maine’s key competitive advantage, capable of providing enough electricity to power much of the Atlantic seaboard. That, in turn, could mean a manufacturing industry with several thousand jobs – something Maine hasn’t seen since the paper industry’s heyday.
LePage stopped the industry in its tracks through a fit of pique over the price the PUC approved – even though the contract amounts to much less than 1 percent of the electricity Maine will consume over the contract period.
LePage’s motto is “capital goes where it's welcome and stays where it's appreciated.” But it’s only appreciated when it fits the governor’s mood of the day.
Kestrel flew away under its own power. But Statoil? This one’s on Paul LePage.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.