No more excuses: Rural Maine needs state investment

On Tuesday, Democrats in the Maine House rejected a proposal from Gov. Paul LePage to eliminate the estate tax.

The plan, which would have drained the state’s coffers by between $14 million and $18 million when implemented, would likely have affected only about 60 people — those with estates valued at more than $5.5 million.

The estate tax was one of the earliest victories in the Republican political machine’s war on language. They effectively branded the levy the “death tax” and have been working resolutely ever since to up its limits and kill it altogether.

The tax’s elimination represents a huge giveaway and a drain on the state’s budget, but more importantly it’s exactly the wrong way to go about investing in our state’s economic health.

Instead of tax giveaways to the wealthy, we should be investing in our people, in our communities and in the infrastructure that will create new jobs and bring new people to our state.

Right now, communities in rural Maine are suffering mightily. The forest products industry, which created good-paying, middle-class jobs out of the woods for generations, is declining.

The Lincoln Paper and Tissue mill in December 2013. Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN

The Lincoln Paper and Tissue mill in December 2013. Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN

Five mills have closed in Maine in the last two years, including the announcement from Madison earlier this month, and the LePage administration has offered little more than talking points about taxes and energy prices and bashing lawmakers — his solution to every problem.

According to news reports, the industry has lost more than 2,300 jobs since 2011.

There’s no easy answer to revitalizing Maine’s rural economy, but it starts with two things: we have to start saying “no” to tax giveaways to the super wealthy and sham economic development programs, like the one that funneled millions of dollars to private investors in a failed effort to reopen the mill in East Millinocket.

Last week, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King sent a joint letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce asking the federal agency to form a task force to help stem the “significant economic hardship” caused by the loss of manufacturing and forest industry jobs in Maine.

The letter includes seven specific asks, but the two most important are the last: help develop a plan to strengthen the region’s workforce and develop strategies to support bottom-up economic development that improves infrastructure, the digital economy and strengthens the long-term economy of the impacted areas.

Their stated goal is to find a way to diversify the economy and rural Maine.

In fact, there are already at least two frameworks for what could be done. Both President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have released plans to help other parts of the country that are suffering from the decline of coal mining.

Coal is a declining source of energy and our country, as a whole, is stronger because of it. It’s dirty, destructive and leaves broken lives and broken communities in its wake. But the transition away from coal has been devastating in rural communities. Middle class jobs and security have disappeared, and the people left behind have little except a fouled environment, chronic disease and unkept promises left in the wake.

The plans vary in size and scope, but they have some consistent elements, including direct investment to strengthen the economy. Maine needs the same sort of response both from the federal level and the state.

This year, the state was projected to finish the fiscal year with a budget surplus of $72 million, and LePage was convinced he could find another $14 million to $18 million more for rich people.

But that surplus is a mirage. Our state has so many unmet needs, ranging from crumbling roads and bridges, to falling-down schools, to a lack of the Internet connectivity we need to grow our economy. (For the nine rounds of grants given out to increase broadband access, the Connect Maine Authority has invested about $18 million, the same amount LePage would give away to the rich.)

So instead of bemoaning the loss of manufacturing jobs and watching as rural communities depopulate, let’s actually do something.

Protect funding for local schools. Families won’t move in if schools aren’t funded.

Make sure mill communities are hooked up to the information superhighway. Millinocket is already reported to be applying for grants. That should be a priority.

We should establish a state emergency fund to support municipalities in the event of large job losses, plant closures or the erosion of the local tax base due to downward revaluation of large, industrial taxpayers to protect other property owners from unanticipated tax spikes.

And we should focus on attracting people — instead of just big employers — and growing the small businesses that we already have.

It’s time we stop talking about the troubles in rural Maine and instead take real and direct action toward developing the next economy. Not the last one.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at