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December 14, 2020

CEI Commentary: It's time to invest in Maine

Originally published in the Portland Press Herald on December 5, 2020

What has the pandemic taught us so far about our economic resilience?

As we grieve the loss of people throughout the country, we’ve learned a lot. Over the past nine months, as states have taken different steps to address health and safety concerns, we’ve seen our colleagues, friends and neighbors in Maine move quickly and find creative ways to navigate unforeseen circumstances – signs that point to a brighter future, if we invest strategically.

According to Moody’s Analytics Back to Normal Index, as of Nov. 25, despite a recent surge in coronavirus cases, Maine ranked first in the U.S. for having an economy operating at 93 percent of where it was in March. How? Maine’s small businesses used ingenuity to pivot and innovate.

While some farms lost customers, many reported record direct-to-consumer sales through community-supported agriculture shares and other channels. When PPE shortages became evident, breweries, textile companies and technology firms quickly switched gears to make them. When federal leaders failed to establish a coordinated, effective public health response, the Maine Center for Disease Control and our health care community rapidly implemented new measures to save lives. With adjustments, the summer tourist season turned out less dire than predicted.

Educators, parents and employers established new routines for summer months and now that the school year is in progress, students are learning from home and in pods.

But we are apprehensive about the coming winter’s “new normal.”Advertisement

Nearly half of all Americans – and 56 percent of Maine people – work for small businesses, which, according to a 2019 J.P. Morgan Chase study, had an average of one month of cash for expenses on hand before the pandemic struck. Many Maine workers are heading into what could be a very long winter.

To help Maine recover and build a future marked by shared prosperity, we need to keep small businesses operating, minimizing the negative impact on their employees. Federal relief helped significantly through the summer but has not been renewed, and the pandemic is surging without hope of widespread vaccinations until late spring.

A century ago, the federal Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, along with like-minded state programs, helped to get Mainers back to work in the Great Depression. Today’s partisan divisions within our federal government haven’t yielded a similar-scale recovery effort. Even if this changes, Mainers will also have to marshal a home-grown response to rescue our economy.

After the Great Recession of 2008, the nation took five years to grow jobs back to its prior peak. It took Maine three years more to achieve that goal, and then most of those jobs grew around the Portland area. Moreover, it took a painfully long time for wages to creep up. This time, we need to recover faster, and in ways that ensure all Mainers can participate.

Jobs that pay a living wage and include paid time off sustain individuals, families and communities. Further, people of color have been disproportionately affected by the virus and associated economic crisis, a reality that has got to inform our efforts recognizing and addressing economic inequity.

State government has an important role. The recommendations released last month by the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee set forth strategies to recover and grow Maine’s economy beyond the immediate challenges caused by the pandemic. In addition, catalytic private contributions, like the major funding from the Harold Alfond Foundation announced in October for education and skill building for Maine people, are encouraging. We should be prepared to invest more in job training, a sustainable food economy, child care and broadband infrastructure, especially in rural areas.Advertisement

Make no mistake, we will need to figure out how to raise and reallocate revenue for new ideas, while not setting the state back and causing harm to families and communities. At the same time, every Mainer who remains employed is one less likely to have to go to a food pantry to feed their family this winter. Every small business that stays open or expands strengthens our economy and workforce for the future.

While we take some comfort that our state economy is doing better than many other states’ compared to where we were in March, we know it’s no accident that Maine leads in that trend and in generally lower levels of COVID spread. The leadership and humanity of Mainers and our small businesses are more important than ever.

Betsy Biemann is CEO and Keith Bisson is president of Coastal Enterprises, Inc. Biemann served on the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee.

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