With Maine facing unprecedented economic decline as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a committee of state leaders hand-picked by Gov. Janet Mills recommends investing nearly $1.1 billion in public health, child care, education, housing, aid for immigrant workers, employer grants, innovation, workforce development and broadband internet expansion.

The Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee delivered on Wednesday its report on how to support and stabilize the state’s economy, meeting the first of two deadlines set by Mills when she convened the 45-member panel in early May.

A second report on sustainability and renewed growth is due Dec. 1.

Wednesday’s report organized recommendations into three categories: support for people, stability for employers and infrastructure investment. The committee also declared that any recovery is inextricably connected to “robust and consistent measures to protect the health and safety of all Maine people.”

Six subcommittees made recommendations to the larger panel co-chaired by Thomas College President Laurie Lachance and Tilson Technology Management CEO Joshua Broder.

Broder acknowledged that his group has no power to appropriate funds or implement the recommendations, and said he understands available funding could cover only a fraction of the total. He said potential sources are unspent portions of the $1.25 billion granted to Maine from the federal CARES Act, statewide bonding that could be on the November ballot and further federal stimulus measures.

A breakdown of the $497 million recommended to support Maine people includes $300 million for pre-K-12 education, $75 million for higher education, $50 million for housing, $45 million for child care, $20 million for public health and $7 million for immigrant workers.

Of the $430 million for stabilizing Maine employers, $350 million would go to employer grants, $50 million to innovation capital and $30 million to workforce development.

The remaining $165 million for infrastructure investment is broken down into a $100 million general obligation bond to support statewide transportation projects ($85 million) and further expand broadband access ($15 million), and $65 million for broadband planning and build-out.

“This is just step one,” Lachance said. “But truly, what is represented by this report is what needs action now.”

Since its first meeting on May 15, the Economic Recovery Committee added two members from its original 43 – which included a staffer from each of Maine’s four congressional delegates. The other 39 members hail from a variety of economic sectors throughout the state.

Six subcommittees of between six and eight members focused on specific topics: education and workforce; innovation; infrastructure; hospitality, retail and tourism; manufacturing and natural resources; and healthcare, nonprofits, childcare and support services. They held more than 60 meetings. The full panel met for nine consecutive Fridays, with proceedings recorded and available to the public on the committee’s website at maine.gov/future/economicrecovery.

In late June, the committee came out with recommendations to help tourism and address other needs deemed too urgent to wait until its initial July 15 deadline. Two weeks ago, the panel warned of a persistent and severe recession without further federal aid.

Wednesday’s 25-page report acknowledges how the pandemic has only worsened inequality among Maine communities, particularly Black residents, and that any recovery plan that fails to address the disproportionate health and economic impact “will only serve to weaken our long-term recovery.”

The report also noted that the safe resumption of schools and childcare operations is critical to economic stability, and should be funded accordingly. Absent from the recommendations are direct aid payments to Mainers or the state tourism industry’s requested $800 million bailout.

Nevertheless, Steve Hewins said he is encouraged by the report. As the president and CEO of industry group HospitalityMaine, Hewins represents the state’s restaurants and lodging establishments and testified before the committee.

The employer support section of the report recommends $350 million in relief grants administered jointly by the state Department of Economic and Community Development and the Finance Authority of Maine, about half of the $710 million requested by the tourism industry.

“The other key difference is that the (committee) does not spell out a time frame or where exactly the money will come from,” Hewins said. “We specifically stressed urgency and using the ($1.25 billion) CARES Act funding to pay for it. … For HospitalityMaine, we find it difficult to take when Maine has the tightest out-of-state restrictions in the nation, yet the money seems to be sitting in the bank unspent. We believe part of the funding could be sent to affected businesses now, and a second round in the fall when the season is over, loan deferrals are due and the long offseason begins.”

Hewins said removing residents of Massachusetts and Rhode Island from the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement for visitors would give tourist-based businesses a chance to recoup some of their losses.

Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, serves on the committee’s hospitality, tourism and retail subcommittee. He said his biggest concern is that the $350 million recommended for businesses and nonprofits is not going to be adequate.

“I recognize there are limited funds,” he said. “We are all relying or banking on the hope that there will be additional federal funding to meet the need out there.”

After a two-week hiatus, the subcommittees are expected to continue their work before the end of July, when an emergency $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit is due to expire. A few days later, on Aug. 3, Mills’ executive order preventing evictions is scheduled to expire.

Accordingly, the report recommends $5 million for a rapid-rehousing program for the homeless population and $45 million for a rental assistance and eviction prevention program. Renters staying in their homes, notes the report, is a “key precondition for practicing social distancing during the ongoing pandemic.”

Federal funding allocated through the CARES Act is available for infrastructure planning or construction directly tied to COVID-19 response, so any broadband internet expansion would not qualify. Still, that was a subject that cut across several committees. The past few months have brought into sharp focus the potential, as well as the current limitations, of remote working, telehealth, and online teaching and learning in Maine.

Broder, the committee co-chair, leads a company involved with building broadband networks, so recommending an investment of public dollars could strike some as a conflict of interest.

“We took many votes, we surveyed members, we prioritized and based our investment amounts on numbers,” Lachance said. “There was not one or two people fixing the results.”

“Ultimately, elected officials will make the decisions,” Broder said. “We’ve tried to make the best recommendations based on what we see.”

Dana Connors, president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the pandemic has given everyone a reason to understand and to validate the importance of broadband internet service.

“We don’t know the full reach and impact and how long we’re going to need to work from home, or the value of attracting young people who might want to live in a rural area,” said Connors, who serves on the education and workforce subcommittee.

He said the governor and the Legislature will be making the final decisions on the report’s recommendations.

“Money that is available will need to be supplemented,” Connors said. “It doesn’t do everything or meet every need, but it’s a balanced attempt to address some priorities.”

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