BREWER — Gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud unveiled a plan to protect the remaining paper mill jobs in Maine and help communities hit by mill closures during a press conference Thursday at the Eastern Maine Labor Council office.
The plan, which Michaud said he would put into effect if he’s elected in November, includes holding a summit with industry leaders and working with New England governors on energy projects.
Gov. Paul LePage was scheduled to hold a press conference on what his administration is doing to help those affected by the closing of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport later Thursday in Holden. Verso Paper officials announced Wednesday afternoon the local mill will shut down by the end of this year, laying off about 570 employees.
Michaud, a Democrat, was an employee for 29 years at the shuttered Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket that filed for bankruptcy last week after closing its doors in February and laying off 212 workers. He referred to the struggles in his hometown and the communities of Bucksport and Old Town several times during his press conference. Old Town Fuel and Fiber announced its closure in August, laying off 180 workers.
Lincoln Paper and Tissue, which currently employs 200 people, in December laid off 200 other workers after an explosion at the Katahdin Avenue mill’s recovery boiler in November 2013.
Maine gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate, attacked LePage’s leadership on Thursday morning, saying the imminent closure of the mills is something the Republican governor should have known about and been addressing as the state’s leader.
“The overwhelming issue is the decline in the industry, at a rate of 5 to 6 percent each year,” Cutler said by phone. “The [Bucksport] mill hasn’t been profitable for years. Why is it only now … that the governor is talking about the natural gas pipeline in New England?”
“Why is everyone so surprised?” Cutler said later. “The problem with every paper mill is foreign competition, the declining demand worldwide for paper and increased energy costs.”
Addressing those items would go far in supporting Maine business, he said.
Michaud said the loss of every papermaking job directly affects the jobs of five to seven others, such as loggers or restaurant workers.
Michaud’s six-point plan states he will:
— Within the first 30 days of taking office convene a summit of industrial leaders, mill owners, union leadership, municipal leaders and landowners and representatives from the forest products industry to develop an action plan to revitalize and protect rural manufacturing jobs and address the cost-drivers and challenges currently impacting the paper industry.
— Work collaboratively with other New England governors to address the energy problems facing the region, including expansion of natural gas as a transitional fuel, especially for industrial users, and consideration of ways to address solutions for demand-response throughout New England at the state level.
— Implement new rules and laws that hold private-sector companies accountable for job creation and retention when they accept public resources, including tax breaks and grants, and establish verifiable metrics for economic development programs.
— Place a two-year moratorium on changes to BETR and BETE, to provide predictability and stability to Maine’s manufacturing sector, and then establish a five-year plan to modernize incentives so that they are sustainable and predictable over the long-term.
— Reduce energy costs through long-term contracts for renewable energy while reducing Maine’s reliance on a single fuel source for electricity.
— Establish and fund an emergency reserve program to support municipalities in the event of large job losses, plant closures or erosion of the local tax base due to revaluation of large, industrial taxpayers to protect other property owners from unanticipated tax spikes.