Gov. Janet Mills on Monday unveiled the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan’s first investments, aimed at helping the state’s small businesses bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.

Her package consists of a $20 million grant program to help small businesses still struggling to recover from the pandemic, $39 million to offset some of the cost of health insurance premiums for businesses and employees and $80 million to shore up the state’s unemployment trust fund, offsetting some of the tax hikes businesses will face to replenish the fund that provides help to the jobless.

Mills said the investments represent the first part of her program, approved by the Legislature, to use nearly $1 billion in federal funds to help with the recovery from the pandemic, position Maine for long-term economic growth and invest in infrastructure.

The governor unveiled the package Monday in Lewiston, saying the city is a hub of small business innovation where she expects many employers will take advantage of the programs.

Monday was the day that the Legislature’s approval of the program took effect. Mills said her administration is still working on the rest of the plan, which will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Maine is well-positioned to launch an economic rebound, she said, because the state has done better than most in getting a majority of the population vaccinated and also because it can build on a 10-year economic development plan that was created before the pandemic.

“We are way ahead of the other states because we have a plan,” Mills said. “Today is Day 1 of the investments.”

A big part of the economic plan developed early in Mills’ administration was an effort to both attract workers from other states and keep younger workers here. To highlight that key goal, Mills announced her program at an Italian restaurant that has been forced to close one day a week because of staffing shortages.

While most of the elements of her plan announced Monday are aimed at small businesses, some of the aid is designed to flow through the businesses to employees and to keep those looking for work in the job market.

The biggest program rolled out Monday was a transfer of $80 million to the unemployment trust fund, the third such infusion since the pandemic began into the pool of money used to pay jobless benefits. Two previous transfers were nearly $300 million and Mills said without the support from the state, unemployment taxes levied on businesses might have doubled.

The transfers also have kept Maine’s fund solvent, and Mills’ office said other states have had to borrow from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits. Those states will have to pay that money back, with interest.

Unemployment in Maine rose sharply during the first few months of the pandemic, but the administration said that during the week ending Oct. 9, claims were at their lowest level since December 2019, a few weeks before the virus swept through the country and reversed the economic growth that had been occurring.

INSURANCE PREMIUM RELIEF

Mills’ plan also calls for a transfer of $39 million to the Maine Bureau of Insurance for health insurance premium relief. The plan, which will begin on Nov.1 and run for 18 months, will provide relief for both employers and their workers.

Health insurers will get $50 per employee per month from the bureau to reduce premiums for small-business customers. The money from the state will be split between employers and employees based on how they share insurance costs – for instance, if an employer pays 80 percent of the cost of insurance, they save $40 a month and the employee saves $10 a month. The governor’s office said employers are free to pass more or even all of the savings onto employees.

The relief increases for couples and families, with $80 in savings for an adult and a child, $100 to two adults and $130 for two adults and a child.

Mills’ office said health insurance premiums for small businesses rose by about a third from March 2017 to March 2020 and the number of people insured dropped. The program is designed to make it easier for employers to continue to provide insurance for their workers and also lessen the cost on both employers and employees.

The final program Mills announced on Monday was a small business grant program for companies that took out loans to stay in business during the pandemic. According to her administration, $5 million of $20 million allocated for the grant program will go to support businesses that took on significant loans to sustain operations.

Eligible businesses will have to show a loss in revenue of at least 20 percent this year.

Applications for that program will open on Nov. 1 and the remaining $15 million will be made available in April so businesses can use tax returns to demonstrate the need for funding.

Department of Economic Development officials said this approach was developed in conjunction with the business community to balance the need for immediate aid with larger grants later on.


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