Maine’s job picture is dismal. Unemployment has been stuck at 7.5 percent for a year, and while that’s lower than the national rate of 9.0 percent, other states have shown improving numbers while Maine has not.
Even more to the point, jobs were supposed to grow in this, the first year of Paul LePage’s administration, dedicated first and foremost to cutting government and boosting the private sector.
Last January, six economists, ranging from the Maine Center for Economic Policy on the left to the Maine Heritage Policy Center on the right, were asked to project job growth for 2011. They predicted between 6,000 and 20,000 net new jobs.
The actual number of net new jobs this year? Zero.
Nor does the future look much better. The New England Economic Partnership just issued a report predicting weaker job growth in Maine than any other New England state. By 2015, Vermont should have an unemployment rate of 4.2%, while Maine’s is projected at 7.3%, which would then be higher than the national average.
Given these numbers, you’d expect LePage to embrace any and all private sector job prospects, but he hasn’t. He’s developed an odd and unsettling bias against “green” jobs, beginning with the wind turbines that have produced Maine’s one undeniable recent success story in industrial development.
Typical of LePage’s approach was his comment, at a community forum in Rockport in June, that wind turbines “are doing an awful lot of damage to our quality of life, our mountains.” What the “damage” was he didn’t say.
But a governor’s words have consequences. Last year, the Land Use Regulation Commission voted 6-1 to approve TransCanada’s expansion of its Kibby Mountain windfarm onto neighboring Sisk Mountain, even though the contested string of turbines fell outside the “expedited permitting” zone created by 2008 legislation – and extended upward into the alpine zone and endangered bird habitat.
In November, LURC, now including several LePage appointees, voted to deny First Wind’s Bowers Mountain project in Washington County – even though the project was completely within the expedited permitting zone. Bowers is the last leg of a series of already approved windfarms in the area, with two on Stetson Mountain and one on Rollins Mountain, all within the industrial forest.
The only criteria Bowers didn’t meet, according to LURC, involves an eight-mile “scenic impact” zone for a resource of “statewide significance” -- a perhaps hopelessly vague standard that could thwart projects all across Maine, whenever a hiker, landowner or Maine Guide objects.
Maine is poised, thanks to research and development at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono, to become a leader in offshore wind development, something that at last glance LePage said he could support.
Yet the Legislature has denied consideration of a bill that could buttress Maine’s competitive edge. The Legislative Council last week denied an appeal by Rep. Jon Hinck (D-Portland) to create an offshore renewable energy certificate program that would offer tax credits. Hinck points out that federal tax credits apply only to land-based wind, and said he modeled his bill on one signed by New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie. But the council turned him down, with only Senate President Kevin Raye in favor among six Republicans.
No idea is too small for the administration to dismiss. Maine is the only one among 11 Northeastern states refusing to sign on for a pilot project grant that could create common standards for electric car recharging.
Electric cars, considered highly feasible as long as recharging stations are developed to expand their range, could eventually free us from our transportation system’s petroleum addiction. As proponents point out, electricity can be produced by many renewable methods, including wind, solar, hydro, and tides.
Supporters wrote to Patricia Aho, commissioner of Environmental Protection, on Oct. 25 to find out why the administration said no. One signer, the House chair of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield, said that, while the project is in a preliminary stage, it makes sense to get aboard.
Not doing so, he said, could repeat the Maine Turnpike Authority’s experience with electronic tolling. Maine picked the Transpass system all on its own – but everyone else picked EZ Pass, which Maine had to convert to after Transpass ceased operations. But to date, Aho hasn’t responded to the letter or a followup phone call.
“I’d rather be part of the beginning of the conversation than come in late,” Fitts observed.
But late is apparently where we’ll be. For Paul LePage, when it comes to private sector jobs, not all are created equal.