WATERVILLE – Some say Maine’s economy is resting on thin ice. Tony Payne offers a more alarming image.

Picture the poster from Wolfgang Petersen’s 2000 movie “The Perfect Storm,” in which a boat is swept up beneath a mammoth wave during a sea storm.

“This is where we are today,” Payne said to an audience Thursday morning, bringing up a similar image on a slideshow.

It was under that backdrop that Payne argued for an economic turnaround in Maine. Payne spoke to 45 people – business owners and professionals, teachers and students – at a breakfast and lecture at the Thomas College Student Center Atrium. The event, part of the college’s Business Breakfast Series, was sponsored by Thomas College and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce.

Payne, 54, a longtime Maine businessman and executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, an economic advocacy group, delivered a sobering assessment of Maine’s economic direction. Mixing in humor and politics, Payne also sounded like a self-help specialist: “This is about you; what are you going to do to make a difference?” And, he asked people to look at themselves in the mirror and say, “I am the solution.”

Payne said there’s no avoiding the “stubborn” facts about Maine compared with the rest of the country: It’s the second-costliest state for health care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation; it’s the third-most expensive for electric energy costs, according to the Maine Public Spending Research Group; it’s No. 15 for overall tax burden, according to The Tax Foundation; and it has the fifth-worst business climate, according to Forbes Magazine.

All of these statistics, Payne said, “are in control of the Maine Legislature.” A key problem, Payne said, is Maine citizens’ reliance on government assistance because of taxes and other costs. He presented a chart showing percentages of personal income from the private sector from 1990 to 2008; the average in the U.S. was a decrease from 74.3 to 72.6; Maine saw a steeper decline, from 71.5 to 66.2.

Payne also criticized legislative proposals for tax increases, even those that do not pass, saying they single Maine out as being unwelcome to business investment and growth.

Amid a global credit crunch crisis and fears of a national recession, Maine can’t afford to continue on “in the wrong direction,” Payne said.

With the general election just weeks away, Payne also offered unabashed political advice: More Republicans and centrist Democrats should be elected to the Legislature “who value Maine’s economy and the economic center.” Payne was once a Republican primary candidate for U.S. Congress.

Going forward, “we need to begin to build the Maine brand,” Payne said. “The question is what that brand is going to be. We have a great opportunity, we really do.”


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