AUGUSTA – Expect to hear more this election season about the performance of the Maine economy in creating jobs. Don’t expect the numbers to jibe.

Not just because the Ins want to highlight advancement and the Outs prefer to focus on declines. But also because, even for the impartial, there are different ways of counting.

Jobs figure to be an even more compelling issue in the months ahead following last week’s news that Georgia-Pacific Corp. will shut down its Old Town pulp and paper mill, which has had 400 people on its payroll.

Efforts are under way to find a new buyer.

Weeks before that jarring development, prospects from some employment watchers were less than rosy. In its February report, a state advisory panel known as the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission updated its forecast for wage and salary employment growth, personal income growth and consumer price inflation.

Expressing more pessimism than in its October 2005 forecast, the commission lowered its predictions for job growth and personal income growth for 2005 through 2009 and scaled up its inflation forecast for the same period.

Politically charged reaction was not long in coming.

• Feb. 15: Republican legislative leaders cited a net loss of 200 jobs in 2005.

“This new information paints a disturbing picture of our economic landscape,” said House Republican leader David Bowles of Sanford. “The governor said in his State of the State address that more people are working than ever before. We now see that is not the case. And what is striking is that job growth is so strong in many other states.”

• Same day: The Baldacci administration issued a statement from State Economist Catherine Reilly, who said, “Since 2003, the Maine economy has produced 4,600 net new jobs. More than ever before, Maine’s economy is affected by regional, national and global factors. The recent Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission report reflects that fact.”

• Feb. 17: A prominent conservative think tank weighed in.

“The Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission’s report is sobering news for all Mainers,” said Scott Moody, vice president of policy and chief economist for The Maine Heritage Policy Center. “The anemic economic growth revealed in the report is a signal to state policy-makers that they must act to reform state government spending in order to avoid government exacerbating this problem.”

• Feb. 24: In a prepared statement from the governor’s office, Democratic incumbent John Baldacci went on record claiming 22,000 new jobs in Maine from 2003 to 2005.

The statement cited Total Resident Employment, noting that it includes nonfarm wage and salary workers, farm wage and salary workers, the self-employed, unpaid family members and Maine residents employed by out-of-state companies.

“That’s 22,000 new jobs,” Baldacci said in his statement.

Since then, the administration has stood by its claim that more people are working, but eased off its assertion about the extent of job growth.

Two ways of measuring are in play.

In an October 2003 analysis by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, the panel traced two different employment surveys used by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics to 1948, “each offering a unique perspective.”

A payroll survey scrutinizes business establishments while a household survey contacts workers or people without jobs. What can result is a puzzling “jobs gap,” the congressional report said.

Explanations vary.

For one thing, accounts of self-employment would turn up in the household survey but not be counted by the payroll survey. The payroll survey, meanwhile, would count all the non-farm wage and salary jobs held by people with more than one job while the household survey would not.

“Analysts should consider both the household and payroll surveys in trying to understand the employment situation,” the congressional report said.

In the State Planning Office, Director Martha Freeman and Reilly say they and state Labor Department officials have tried to be scrupulous in highlighting findings based on one measure or another. Baldacci communications chief Crystal Canney says directly translating a number of more people working into a number of new jobs was not quite right.

Baldacci suggests that long-standing economic indicators might not capture telling details of the modern economy.

“All I care about is people working. … Maine is in a pretty good, it’s in a better position, this is the point,” he said in a recent interview.

The governor’s claims about economic improvement do not go unchallenged, but to date his potential election opponents have talked more about fiscal management.

“Whatever the private sector achieves or fails to achieve has had very little to do with the Blaine House or state government,” said Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville, one of the candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, in January on the day of Baldacci’s State of the State address. “I think people perceive that state government itself as a business is not in good shape.”

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